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Entry Level: Eugene S. Robinson Tackles Swans


Entry Level is a new series where musicians re-examine the records which piqued their interests in heavy and loud music as children and young adults.

He Ain’t Heavy

I’m going to skip the early stage entry into what, for a 12 year old, passed for transgressive. Which means skipping over me borrowing Destroyer from a friend. Especially since it was more noteworthy that Kiss were from Brooklyn than that they were satanists. Or dark. Or heavy. Any rendering of “Beth” would have laid that to rest.

I won’t even talk about how Eddie and the Hotrods, a record gifted to me by my stepfather on account of it sporting a suicidal teen on its cover. Yeah, that got me into the Ramones and the Plasmatics and deeper and weirder shit.

These were just all on-ramps to the moment when, still in the blush of post-teen friendship Henry Rollins and I were walking through San Francisco. Destination? Unknown. Location? On Broadway. I had been telling him about something I knew something about, James Joyce’s use of language to destroy language as I understood it in Finnegan’s Wake, a book I would later steal and send him. He returned the favor.

“Have you ever heard of Swans? It’s like us [Black Flag]. But just…..” and here he paused….”just uglier, slower, more brutal. You should really talk to Gira. I think you would like him.”

Two weeks later a package showed up. It was a mixtape from Rollins. Swans, Diamanda Galas and Einstürzende Neubauten. The year was 1985. Diamanda and Einstürzende existed on the continuum of the known for me.

Swans? Something else was happening here. The first artist I saw attack his audience? James Chance. But that was easy, as I would later learn in my own time with Oxbow. Gira, Norm Westberg, Al Kizys, Jarboe, and whoever I’m missing made Fuck You Music most extreme. Most hardcore at the time was the music born of a certain hysteria. Crack up moments caught mid-crack-up. Most metal? A kind of macho ideation.

But Swans — on Filth, and Cop, both on the Rollins’ mixtape — were the soundtrack for some real, nightmarish adult living, undergirded by the grind and inevitability of being on the business end of a power arrangement where even if you win you lose.

Which is to say be you the jailed or the jailer, there was no light let into this prison. And this was life changing.

I called Gira soon thereafter. He hung up the phone on me. Then he called me back and asked me where I got the balls to call HIM? He cursed. At first I laughed and tried to explain that “our mutual friend” Rollins had thought I should call. He cursed me, now. Then hung up. I called HIM back now, not laughing, now. And I was caught. Like a fistfight you can’t remember how you got into.

It was a policy of total war and suddenly I understood.

When I later next had the opportunity to talk to Gira in person he was beyond polite. I never heard from Rollins again.

Nothing I have ever recorded since then sounds very much like Swans to ME, at the very least. But everything I have ever recorded has adhered to this policy of total war, also known as the day I stopped fucking around.

So everything good that happened after that and all of the horrible bad? Have this day to credit/blame for it.

As for me? I take responsibility for nothing.

Eugene is an accomplished stage performer, the intimidating frontman of seminal bands Whipping Boy and Oxbow, and published writer, authoring Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking, A Long Slow Screw, and Oxbow: The Thin Black Book, as well as articles for Viceland, LA Weekly, Decibel, and The Wire. You can learn more about Eugene at his website.

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