Michael Gira: “Jarboe’s version of ‘Your Property’ on Swans Are Dead and Soundtracks For The Blind is awesome: there’s no effects on her voice, she goes down however many tens of octaves and sings those low notes by reaching into her belly and emitting these notes — she was fantastic in that way.”
During the interviews that led to the creation of the book “SWANS: Sacrifice And Transcendence – The Oral History”, there was one conversation, focused on his song-writing at the time of Cop/Young God (1983-1985 era) that truly enthralled me. I had to cut the tale down for the book but the original transcript reads:
“I remember reading Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology Of Fascism in ’83-’84 and it had a particular influence on the song ‘I Crawled’ from the Young God EP. In that book, if I can summarise it in a very plebeian manner, he draws the parallel between the typical model of the family with a strong father as a microcosm of the state. He talks about how that shapes behaviour and identity and helps to inculcate a kind of obeisance to authority very early on. It was written pre-World War Two, and he talks about the parallels between Hitler and Stalin, which was pretty prescient of him: he notes how both men reached back to this mythic atavistic past when everything was great in the country and their goal was to bring it back — they were like avuncular, paternal figures for the nation.
At that time, Ronald Reagan was being re-elected and I thought the parallels — though less overtly deadly and destructive — were very apposite. I wrote that song — “you’re my father, my father, I obey you,” and took it a step further. I had read this essay by J.G. Ballard Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan and thought the image of Reagan fucking and choking me was an apt image for the times.
I had been obsessed with the media’s — not that the media is one entity or one conspiracy — colonisation of our consciousness, particularly in the west and capitalist corporate countries, its shaping of our identities and its formulation of the anxieties that compel one to consume: a recent phenomenon that didn’t begin until the end of the Second World War when advertising and production amped up and corporations had to create need. It had a lot to do with having all these factories after the war that needed to do something, so they began manufacturing anxiety in people so they would consume products. Nowadays that equation is rampantly out of control, culminating in the probable destruction of the planet and the species — all the horrible social effects from mass media on our consciousness and our sense of who we are on the planet.
I felt this whole process, along with working as a low-level wage slave for most of my life, was akin to being raped: being invaded against your will by stimuli over which you have no control and where you’re helpless as it impinges on your consciousness. That’s another reason I used the word ‘rape’, I felt it was what modern existence was. I carried that sort of imagery on for some time and then grew weary of it because it became a cliché in its own right to harp on such things. That was the kind of thing that I was obsessed with in those early days. The song ‘Your Property’ from Cop was probably another way in which I dealt with it, and Time is Money (Bastard), of course… that way of thinking about media, mind control, work as slavery, and consumerism was very much on my mind in those days.”
I’ve interviewed around 600 people in my spare time after/around work since 2012 and I’d not encountered an artist or musician who was able to articulate the imaginative process behind their writing in this way. Sure, I’d heard people ‘tell me the story’ of a song or what it’s lyrics related to – this was something else. This wasn’t just an emotional response. This was hundreds of pages of reading, clearly much independent thinking, intellectual and conceptual influences being woven together into a succinct, concise and tangible result.
The nearest comparison I had was a conversation with the painter Chris Gollon describing the painting he contributed to Thurston Moore’s ROOT remix/art project. He had received a 52 second composition from Thurston and it called to mind Native American burial grounds; a film called Jeremiah Johnson starring Robert Redford where the lead rides his horse through a burial ground; Chris’ studio on an island in the Thames formerly used for WW1 aircraft hangars and where the spice girls would rehearse; the studio next door which created prosthetic limbs which would hang from a washing line; Toledo Cathedral where cardinals’ hats are hung from the ceiling and left to decay; an art exchange between Mexico and the Glasgow Print Studio so he included a death mask; the title coming from Morpheus, the god of dreams, and the House of Sleep/Kingdom of Sleep…
To me, Gira possessed that same artistic intensity: the drawing together of disparate ideas into a composition as sharp, honed and visceral as ‘I Crawled’. I was stunned to really understand that behind the stark lyrics there was this depth: factories, fascism, Reich, Reagan, parents, working, media, the mind, consumerism…
…And Gira was able to grind that down to
You’re my father/I obey you/I want you to be my father/Eliminate my freedom/I know what I am/You know what I am/I’m weak/Take what’s mine/Come into my room/Put your hands on my throat/Now choke me, choke me/Make me feel good/Be my father/Make it right/Think for me/Choke me
You can see all the associations and wider connections flowing from fewer than a hundred words. My feeling is that it’s what makes Gira an excellent writer: that each word is precisely what is needed, but each word opens up an entire universe of ideas.