first round game
(7) swans, “let it come down”
(10) daisy chainsaw, “hope your dreams come true”
and play on in the second round
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 9.
yes, let’s: kyle simonsen on “let it come down”
I don’t know if I should even be writing an essay about Swans and their inscrutable frontman, Michael Gira.
At the beginning of the academic year, when I am selecting essays to assign my students, I pause over Sherman Alexie’s “Superman and Me.” Alexie describes growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, learning to read through comic books, and illustrates the transformative power of literature. It’s an ideal choice for my students, who will be writing their own literacy narratives. It’s the right length, uses the right sort of language. It’s widely anthologized for a reason. But I hesitate, because Sherman Alexie has been accused by more than one woman—at least ten of them, in fact—of sexual misconduct.
Gira, too, has been accused. Of rape, by a former musician on his label, Larkin Grimm. She claims that Gira sexually assaulted her while she was intoxicated and unconscious, and that many times afterward he propositioned her, came on to her, forcibly kissed her. Gira, for his part, denies any wrongdoing entirely, and says any contact between the two of them was entirely consensual.
I wear a lot of hats. Literally. Mostly baseball caps that cover up my bald spot, bedecked with favorite sports teams and bands. (None of those bands is Swans.) Hats I don’t want to wear: trillbies, fedoras, bowlers.
I also wear a lot of hats figuratively. Teacher, writer, husband, mentor, father to both a son and daughter. Hats I don’t want to wear: defense attorney, megaphone, or signal booster for a sexual predator.
Michael Gira likes wearing a pale cowboy hat he acquired from Jarboe La Salle Devereaux, his former Swans bandmate. In an interview from 2013, he explains:
STEREOGUM: When did you start wearing the cowboy hat?
GIRA: [Laughs]. In 1985. Jarboe’s father was a former FBI agent. I saw this wonderful hat and it was his FBI hat and I started wearing it. But I’ve always worn hats.
STEREOGUM: It’s kind of like Indiana Jones in that the hat makes the man.
GIRA: Well, there’s a lower part that might also make the man.
I decided to assign Alexie anyway. But after discussing the essay’s literary merits with my students, I disclosed the charges against Alexie. I asked them how they felt about reading the work of a man accused of sexual harassment.
They said you have to separate the art from the artist. They said that’s bullshit, and that’s impossible. They said that as young black men they appreciated reading someone else who felt along the seams of a racial ceiling imposed by society. They said that I should have told them at the beginning.
Was that wrong? To let them fall in love with Alexie first, to sympathize with him, to picture him flipping through the pages of the titular Superman comic book, trying to make sense of it and the world on the reservation? Is it wrong to present him as a model to my students and then kick the legs out from under the desks just as they are trying to figure out what the fuck an essay even is?
I’ve never been in love with Swans. I listened to them a lot around 2010, when they reformed and “The Seer” came out, but they were never one of THOSE bands for me, the ones you listen to on headphones in the dark staring up at a ceiling you can’t see (because of the aforementioned dark) and trying to decide who you are, who you will be today and who you will be forever, and who everyone else will be to you, for you.
The song “Let it Come Down” appears on the Swans’ 1989 LP, The Burning World. Come down it did: the album, more palatable than the bleak, noisy records that had preceded it, was a commercial flop. The band’s label, UNI, dropped them soon after its release. Gira has said that he hates the album. Will this affirm your own hatred of it, or make you like it more?
As someone who grew up an avowed metalhead, my first inclination is to make clear that I don’t even consider Swans a gothic rock band, because that’s what I did as a young metalhead, and what I think most young metalheads do: spend a lot of time gatekeeping the genre. We’d do it with some irony, mocking music that we didn’t consider “tr00” metal, but we also took it seriously, because we were at an age where belonging mattered a lot to us, and we didn’t want to be associated with “fake” metal. So we were long-haired, spike-bracered, combat-booted bouncers at a metaphorical club no one probably even really wanted to get into very bad.
But anyway, to me at least, Swans are properly post-punk, or now perhaps post-rock. And though all goth rock is post-rock, the reverse is not true; it’s the “all poodles are dogs, but all dogs are not poodles” problem from your basic freshman logic class.
So, the point: does this Swans song even belong in the company it now finds itself in?
Well, they are in that company, and at the risk of betraying my metal brethren and our boundary enforcement club, I’m not sure gothic rock is really a clearly defined subgenre at all. Usually, when we are picking apart a genre, we’re looking at stylistic elements: instrumental qualities, singing styles, technology used. But goth has always been more about the atmosphere of the music than anything else: droning, dramatic, dark, and romantic. And The Burning World and “Let It Come Down” are certainly that.
Perhaps it says something about the allure of the gothic sensibility that as forceful a creative persona as Gira was drawn away from his abrasive origins, seduced by the Egyptian makeup and fishnet tights, perhaps, to something more melodic. I’ve seen “The Burning World” described as alt-country, folk rock, and world music, and none of those things are wrong, but the atmosphere of the music is unquestionably gothic: obsessed with endings, with apocalypse, with giving in entirely to any sort of darkness that will have you.
In a Bitch Media article, Beth Winegarner describes “the commodification of goth with Hot Topic and Marilyn Manson, who was arguably—if accidentally—a big part of the reason goth faded from the mainstream. After the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, rumors started that shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were goths and fans of Marilyn Manson (they weren’t). Schools across the country began cracking down on ‘goth kids,’ barring students from wearing black clothes, trench coats, weird makeup, and spiked collars to school.”
I was a freshman in high school in 1999. The school I attended then was Standley Lake Senior High. Jefferson County School District. Twenty-one miles away from Columbine down Wadsworth Boulevard.
As I remember it, goth music had already “faded from the mainstream.” I certainly wasn’t listening to it. The only bands in this bracket my friends and I listened to on a regular basis were Manson, NIN, White Zombie, Smashing Pumpkins. The goth-adjacent. Not tr00 goth. I listened to Ministry, because my uncle did, and I grew up idolizing him, and I would sometimes listen to Bauhaus or Nick Cave because I’d read other musicians I liked mention them in guitar magazine interviews and so of course I had to like them too.
I remember watching the Columbine shooting alone in the apartment I lived in then with my mother and brother.
I remember impromptu counseling sessions held by teachers and administrators at our school in the days after, though I don’t recall my friends or I knowing any of the victims.
I remember the weird looks I’d always gotten as a lanky kid with glasses hiding beneath a too-big biker jacket taking on a slightly different tinge. I remember, when I went to pick out that jacket, some other kid at the store in the mall braying to his parents as they watched me try it on: “Look at that kid, he thinks he’s a badass!” The truth, of course, was that I knew I was no such thing. But I desperately wanted to be. I always got funny looks in my leather, but after Columbine the whispers themselves got a little bit quieter. Some people were overtly nicer.
Sometime after the incident at Columbine, I was called to the principal’s office. This wasn’t unusual. I was a bad student who skipped class a lot, mostly to hang out in “The Pit” with my friends and smoke cigarettes (or a joint if we were lucky) and play hackysack and listen to music. There was one girl who did smoke cloves; she should probably be writing this essay.
But anyhow, I found myself in the principal’s office. What had happened was this: as we reviewed homework in biology class, I’d grown bored and flipped the worksheet on taxonomic rank over and began doodling and scrawling song lyrics in the jagged all-caps that are the hallmark of an edgy fourteen-year-old. I don’t remember which sludgy riffs were running through my head that day—though I am sure they weren’t Swans’—and so I don’t recall what the lyrics were, exactly, but in the culture of fear that permeated the school in the weeks and months following Columbine they were enough to make my teacher—a sweet, patient woman—turn my paper over to someone in the administration rather than handing it back to me.
I pushed my glasses up my nose and stared at the faux woodgrain on the desk in the vice principal’s office and tried to explain, as he and the biology teacher looked on with folded arms and furrowed brows, that I wasn’t violent. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I was just writing lyrics to the songs that ran through my head, songs that described the violence of the world around me, songs that seemed true.
They never made me stop wearing my leather jacket, that I can recall, and if they’d taken away my black band t-shirts I don’t know that I could have made it to Wednesday without showing up shirtless. Goth hadn’t died for me or my friends that April. The strange looks were just of a different sort. A gaze without any romance.
“Let It Come Down” is perhaps the most accessible song on what is widely regarded as Swans’ worst album. To this day, The album literally haunts Gira, who says he “abhors it.”
He’s not alone.
Writing for Brainwashed, Creaig Dunton calls The Burning World “easily the most maligned release in Swans' discography.” Aaron Lariviere, in listing it as the worst of Swans’ entire catalog, notes the “poor match between newly light songwriting and too-thin, too-precious production.”
Fan communities—message boards, subreddits, old mailing lists—are full of comments with fans halfheartedly imploring others to “give it a shot,” because the album “really isn’t that bad,” about as tepid an endorsement as one will see outside of the political arena.
Even within the context of The Burning World, controversial album that it is, “Let It Come Down” isn’t on its face the most notable song. “Saved” was the only song on the album that rose to the Billboard alternative rock charts—Swans’ only song ever to do so—and the song that has had the most staying power from the record is “God Damn the Sun,” a downright dirge that’s still more or less a staple of their live performances. [This song, possibly superior, was deemed ineligible by the Selection Committee on account of its participation in a previous March Xness tournament: 2016’s March Sadness. —Editors]
What “Let It Come Down” has that those songs don’t: Sha la la la la la la.
You may be unsurprised to learn that the cover of the album features an open, drooping flower with a visible pistil.
You may, at this point, be entirely unsurprised to learn that the song begins with a meditation on masculinity: “Some men are made of steel and blood/Some fall from Heaven when their time does come.” No word on what sorts of hats these men are wearing.
The verses are pretty much a gothic word cloud: there’s a knife, there’s some cold black pain, and some accumulated dark by a window for the narrator to stare into. There’s an unbroken chain, a heart to be split, some betrayal.
I’m most intrigued by the burning rain in which the narrator vows to drown at the end of the first verse. This is the sort of paradox I find myself wrestling with.
I can imagine an essay that’s not about “Let It Come Down.” I can imagine an essay that’s about “God Damn the Sun,” perhaps the one clearly redeeming song on the reviled album, the beautiful black rose amidst the etc. etc. thorns. I can imagine an essay that’s able to point out that even the darkest, blackest etc. contains a shimmering something beautiful in an overlooked recess of the endless abyss. That’s pretty gothic.
I can imagine that essay arguing that you need to be able to find beauty in even the most horrible people, not even just the alleged horrible people, but the confirmed horrible people, the horrible people being horrible in unambiguous ways in brightly lit rooms, their horror recorded on video and audio devices, undisputed and unmuffled by baglama, bouzouki, tabla—the instruments of The Burning World.
I can imagine the essay desperate to provide an answer to how we ought best to consume the art we can no longer entirely focus on without hearing the hisses and clicks of the recording process, seeing the violence inherent in the brushstrokes, even if those hisses and strokes were what drew us to that sort of art in the first place. I can imagine an essay of defense, of preservation.
But this essay is about “Let It Come Down.” And so we have our prayer, our mantra. Sha la la la la la la. Let it come down.
Kyle Simonsen has written for Assay, Sidebrow, Rain Taxi, and others; a chapbook of his poetry is available from Blood Pudding Press. He teaches creative nonfiction writing, composition, and technical editing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
megan campbell on “hope your dreams come true”
Way back in the 90s the seminal Minneapolis club First Avenue hosted Danceteria on Sunday nights. No live music, just a DJ and a dance floor full of sullen teens (Danceteria was 16 & up). I have no idea if people old enough to drink regularly showed up for Danceteria, but I do recall my friend Mani coldly eyeing a woman in a corset (truly the epitome of Trying Too Hard in frigid, grungy 90s Minneapolis) and saying, “What‘s she doing here? She looks 30.” I cattily agreed, which is pretty rich given that I was almost certainly wearing velvet hot pants at the time.
Danceteria at First Ave was probably more Goth-adjacent than true Goth, but it was absolutely the real thing as far as my suburban 17 year-old self was concerned. All-ages nights were rare and wonderful, and if you craved black eyeliner and weird boys with long hair then Danceteria was the only game in town (Rogue was full of what would now be called bros and Glam Slam was more of a funk/R&B club—and as it was also owned by Prince I should’ve gone there more). The other reason I loved Danceteria was the epically large screen onto which they would project the music video for whatever song was playing. My favorites were Sisters of Mercy “More” and Depeche Mode’s “I Feel You” and Daisy Chainsaw’s “Love Your Money.” While some of these songs have aged better than others, none will ever sound as good as they did on a crowded dance floor played at a decibel level that’s probably illegal now with the video 12 feet high.
I purchased Daisy Chainsaw’s album Eleventeen on the strength of my Danceteria love but I barely remember “Hope Your Dreams Come True.” It’s a song that manages to be loud and grating, yet wispy and slight. There is an unnecessary amount of feedback and no real sense of verse/chorus/bridge. The lyrics are few and hard to make out, except for the last little refrain: “I hope all your dreams come true / If they don’t what will you do?” This is a nicely Goth taunt, even if the song does little more than tunelessly drone for three minutes. Really, it feels more like album filler than a single.
The video, however, showed a lot more ambition. “Hope Your Dreams Come True” is rich with the Goth—it’s black and white, and features lingering shots of Tarot cards, the full moon, a decaying manse, blood, death—and, rare for the early 90s, it also attempts an actual narrative. A soldier (I go back and forth on whether we’re supposed to understand him as a Nazi soldier) enters a lavish but falling-down country house harboring a feral young woman and some creepy servants. The feral young woman is revealed to be a vampire (or maybe a werewolf?—lots of tropes are being tossed around here) and, after a implied marriage ceremony they are deposited in the bedchamber, where she kills him and maybe herself too. The last shots are of a servant dutifully clearing the bloody marriage bed. Yes, it’s messy and derivative, but also macabre, especially with a frankly abrasive song playing over it. As a final flourish, it’s dedicated to Angela Carter. Teen me would have LOVED it.
But teen me never saw it. I saw it for the first time maybe a year ago, while working on the track list for March Vladness. I imagine it played on MTV a few times (I do remember seeing “Love Your Money” on MTV) but not when I happened to be watching. Back then, you saw whatever was on heavy rotation and whatever else you lucked into, assuming you stayed up late enough to watch Headbangers Ball or 120 Minutes. This, to me, represents an under-discussed aspect of the generation gap: there really is a difference between those of us who grew up listening to the radio or watching MTV and patiently waiting for our favorites to come on, and those of you who’ve always had access to curated playlists and YouTube. My cohort accepted that hearing a little bit of everything, even stuff we hated, was part of listening to music. Now we are all tiny dictators, our fingers hovering ever near the skip button.
I mostly dislike this modern music utopia of Choosing Your Choice—I miss not only the randomness of the past, but also things like cover art, liner notes, and the feeling that the order of songs on an album Means Something. But one thing I do love is having nearly all of the videos from the 80s and 90s available to me via YouTube/VEVO/Vimeo. I ADORE that. Linger too late over drinks at my place and you will almost certainly be forced to watch some videos. My treadmill time accounts for at least 25% of the views for “Heartbreak Beat” and “Never Say Never” on YouTube. I’m almost certainly the only person who still watches The Hooters’ “And We Danced” and Barry Manilow’s “Read ‘Em and Weep” (shut up—Jim Steinman produced it) regularly. And while “Love Your Money” is not quite as thrilling in my living room as it was on the club big screen, I was absolutely delighted to discover it again.
There are new videos, sure, but the best part of this is that there are still old videos, especially old videos I never saw, for songs that I’d forgotten (This Picture, “Naked Rain”, Heather Nova, “Walk This World”). I loved these songs, and they came back to me, just like that played-out saying promised. What could be better? Sure, my generation had to listen to the radio for an hour just to hear a Cathy Dennis song, but our reward was forgetting all about that song, casting it back into the world, and eventually stumbling upon it once again, years later, and enjoying it and our memories of it all over again. I don’t believe that people who grow up with YouTube and Spotify have the same relationship with music—everyone’s favs are digitally preserved, boxed up in computers and iPods and online accounts—they’re right there, all the time. They’re not forgotten, so they can’t really be remembered. Gen X might barely exist in the public consciousness, but one thing we usually get grudging credit for is our music, and I think that’s partly because we straddle this line between everything being ephemeral and everything being ruthlessly preserved—in this one tiny instance we got the best of both worlds.
First Avenue still exists (and currently bills itself as “Your Downtown Danceteria Since 1970” hmm) but Danceteria itself does not. Daisy Chainsaw does not still exist—the lineup that made Eleventeen did not make it out of 1993 intact and the rest of the band folded in 1995. They were by no means the Goth-est—listening to them now it’s clear that they were trying a little bit of everything—grunge, Goth, punk—to see if anything stuck. As with most bands, nothing did. Despite this, they’re one of the bands that still evoke the real 90s for me—that lost moment when everyone smoked, no one cared about their hearing, and asshole teens judged you for trying to look sexy. The songs and videos may have floated back into my life, but, as every Goth knows, some things are gone forever.
Megan Campbell is a March Vladness Official Selection Committee member and sells vintage clothes on Etsy.