Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence - The Oral History by Nick Soulsby - Books - Reviews - Soundblab

Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence - The Oral History by Nick Soulsby

by Kevin Orton Rating: Release Date:
Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence - The Oral History by Nick Soulsby
Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence - The Oral History by Nick Soulsby

Rock bios can be a dodgy prospect. Many are horribly written. Others are based more on gossip than fact. Sometimes the biographer is little more than an embittered soul with an axe to grind. There are, of course, many notable exceptions. Paul Trynka’s bios on David Bowie and Iggy Pop are exemplary. Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen is not only definitive but one of the finest and most well-written bios I’ve ever read, period.

Then there is the oral history track. Most I’ve read, have been clumsily compiled. Nick Soulsby’s Swans Sacrifice And Transcendence: The Oral History is anything but. Skillfully assembled, Soulsby lets the band tell their own story, warts and all.

While I’ve known about Swans since the 80’s, I don’t know squat about their history. For many years, I avoided them like the plague. I felt they were pretentious and completely devoid of humor. Due to a good friend’s urging, I gave them a deeper listen and discovered my assessment superficial and off the mark. Michael Gira has quite a sense of humor. Stoic. Dry. Dark. But it’s there. What’s more, the musicians he’s worked with are formidable talents. Suffice to say, I find Soulsby’s oral history to be not only enlightening but captivating. What emerges is a story of a man who’s stuck to his vision come hell or high water. And he had to wade through both. Sometimes, it was the biz, other times, completely self-inflicted. While not every word on Gira is flattering, the overall picture painted is as epic and heroic as a Delacroix.   

From guerrilla tours to bad PA’s to small audience turn out, Swans truly persevered in the face of adversity. What Gira was doing was original and completely unconcerned with fashion or trend. The closest they came to mainstream success was the Bill Laswell produced, Burning World. A record Gira all but disowned. And while ‘Saved’ had all the makings of an MTV hit, like the album, it never took off like it should. It’s a very familiar story: big budget record not promoted, does not sell, ergo contract is not renewed. Gira’s response? Start his own label, Young God Records. He smartly retained the rights to his work and re-released what he could. When download culture killed cd sales, he responded with hand crafted releases. Moves that were as ahead of their time as Swans' music.

That’s not to suggest any of it was easy. It was as much of an uphill battle as keeping Swans together or establishing his later ensemble, Angels of Light. And though charismatic and charming, Gira could also be a complete tyrant and task master. Burning as many bridges as he built with his scorch earth approach to the creative process. While his drinking may have certainly been a contributing factor, it was also Gira’s tirelessly demanding, punishing high standards that burnt band members, loved ones and collaborators out. Relationships would be intense, inspired and focused. Only to fray and disintegrate. It’s a miracle this guy could keep it going for as long as he has. It’s a miracle he didn’t burn out himself. What emerges is a portrait of a flawed, driven individual with an unwavering vision. Truly a story of sacrifice and transcendence.

In many ways, Soulsby’s oral history could serve as a guide to dealing with the music business. The shitty clubs, the fucked-up sound. Sketchy promoters and managers. The lack of attendance and recognition. Driving through snow storms, loading in during torrential downpours only to play to an audience of 20. Then ironically, later discovering you’re big in Japan. Throughout it all, Gira is the catalyst and cataclysm.

What struck me was how much Swans’ story mirrors my own experience in the music industry. Not to mention, how Gira’s shortcomings often resemble my own in retrospect. Nor am I sure I'm alone in any of that. The story here is truly universal. Seriously, I would recommend this as required reading for any aspiring Indie minded musician. At times, it could serve as both a how-to and what-not-to-do guide. It really hits home what is required of you. In terms of running your own label or keeping a band together, Devendra Banhart sums it up perfectly, “The humility and true blood, sweat, and tears that went into putting something out---how much you have to believe in something to make that effort. It took so much concentration and energy to put out just one record.”

As for as Gira himself, Music biz vet, Kevin Wortis puts it best, “This guy will do anything---anything at all---to succeed at his vision of music, culture and art.” As for describing that vision, the music speaks for itself. In terms of what drives him, artist Miles Seaton’s observation could serve as an epitaph, “He was trying to find magic”.

If you ask me, this is not only a must-read for fans but critics as well. Utterly inspiring.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars
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