second round game
(7) swans, “let it come down”
(2) smashing pumpkins, “bullet with butterfly wings”
AND PLAY ON IN THE SWEET 16
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 15.
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.
A WORLD OF VAMPIRES: IAN MAXTON ON “BULLET WITH BUTTERFLY WINGS”
Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. —Karl Marx, Capital
The world is a vampire . . . —Smashing Pumpkins, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”
I bought it at Goodwill. The plastic tabs that allowed the case to swing open were broken. An irony of the CD era was that indulgent double-albums were packed into cheap plastic cases, visually minimized to the point of being ridiculous. The case would break and fall apart and scatter across the floor of my Pontiac Trans Sport minivan—the first step on its long journey to the landfill. The discs would either make their way into a fake-leather album that housed dozens of discs or, eventually, get dumped onto my iPod, a small brick compressing the grandiose album even further into absurdity. The result was that I carried Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness around in my pocket every day of high school.
An admission: in my youth I related more to the sweeping melodrama of “Tonight, Tonight,” and the broke-down nostalgia of “1979.” I would drive, with windows down, through the flatness of suburbs and cornfields around my hometown, haloed by halogen streetlights, Corgan’s voice curling through the evening summer air, inscribing meaning on the empty, dark world passing out the window, in love with my own sadness. But these are not the songs I am writing about. “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” offers something these others cannot. It is a tune through which to channel anger. It is cathartic. While certainly in the same vein as the rest of the album’s too-muchness, the too-muchness here is all about being mad at like, the system, man.
And Billy Corgan is pissed. Corgan is a particular type of ur-American-white-boy. He vents his rage as a way to flatter his own vanity, to flout his virtuous anger, and hide the fact that he is a drama-queen—a phrase which disguises this attitude as a gendered one, which it most certainly is not. Corgan is petty. He is a fit-thrower. In the year of our lord 2019, Corgan’s antics are common knowledge to anyone who has ever paid attention to his career. But, on Mellon Collie, he channeled all of this into a two-hour rock opus that modulates wildly and thrillingly between rage and romanticism. It is an album for the freaks and the ghouls, with Corgan as ringmaster. He is an actor, swinging from melody to invective, sweetness to venom. It is difficult to say if he is completely self-serious, or scenery chewing. I am inclined to think the former. No matter, we love him for it.
Here is a list of some things that make “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” undeniable: the monotone drawl of the opening line; the way Corgan curls his lips around the word “rat”—spitting it through his teeth; the way the toms gurgle up from the primordial ooze of the opening line to lead the song on its dark march; the guitar noise holding out for those four beats at the end of the chorus; the way, three-quarters of the way through the song, all the noise that has been built up drops out, leaving only Corgan’s voice and that gothic guitar as he intones: “Someone will say, ‘what is lost can never be saved’”—before the band bursts back in and Corgan curls his lips once more; the unresolved chord at the end. The song sits perfectly at the nexus of goth and punk and grunge, where dread, petulance, and bitterness are in balance.
There is something silly in all this. It is easy to poke fun at the song simply by intoning the first lines in one’s best Corgan impression—tHe WoRlD iS a VaMpIrE. I have done this. In the lyrics, it isn’t enough for Billy to compare himself to plain ‘ole Job (who is, despite what the song might suggest, mostly known for losing his cool)—he’s got to be the Son of God; he will settle for nothing less. I have laughed at this song as often as I have sung along to it. Then again, when artists are afraid of looking ridiculous, of risking parody, they accomplish little.
Indeed, it is a testament to Corgan’s abilities as a songwriter and musician (I trust he will not read this, the swelling of his head could be fatal) that “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” manages to move me. All the same, I am skeptical of identification in art, and this is a good example of why. “Identifying” with Corgan, or, if you prefer, the persona he takes on in this song, requires one to adopt a level of paranoia, of self-aggrandizement, of chosen-one ethos that is truly staggering, almost absurd. And yet, have I not felt this? Needed to feel this? It is not enough to rage, and here, it is all channeled back to Corgan’s ego, making the anger of the song easily internalized.
Karl Marx more or less prefigured Corgan’s own observation that the world, indeed, is a vampire. For Marx, the goth(ic) image of the capitalist-as-vampire was a distillation of his larger critique that the capitalist class could only survive through the exploitation of workers, sucking their time and labor—their very lives—dry, in order to sustain the lifestyles of the ownership class, who do no real labor. In my youth, I did not think of Marx when I listened to Smashing Pumpkins. Now—I do.
It is strange, how I have changed. I’ve aged, but managed to stay the same, too. These bizarre connections, across space and time, will continue to persist through the years. This Marxist wrinkle in the song—this echo which I doubt Corgan ever intended, and which I, until recently, had never noticed—has made the song layered and interesting, to me. It has given it a different life and space in my head. The story of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” is that one can only escape by transcending the world as a “chosen one” through authentic and singular creative acts. If only the record company vampires would leave him alone, Corgan could be real every night on that stage and make whatever most satisfied him. I identified with that—maybe I still do.
But now, on top of that, is an entirely different layer. Marx’s critique is, at its core, a critique of structures and systems. Yes, they are made up of individual actors, but getting rid of a few capitalists—getting rid of a few record execs—will change nothing. Marx urges the individual to recognize their place in this complex web of systems, choose a side, and form webs of connection and solidarity that seek to dismantle the system as a whole. To channel the rage one feels at the sense that things are unjust at their core into action that might begin to change that fact. As the late writer Mark Fisher wrote in his essay—aptly titled—“Exiting the Vampire Castle”:
Our struggle must be towards the construction of a new and surprising world, not the preservation of identities shaped and distorted by capital. If this seems like a forbidding and daunting task, it is . . . . We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree—on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication.
When Corgan snarls the world is a vampire, I snarl along with him. I know, too, that he is missing the point—evident in the age of his tea shops, wrestling leagues and InfoWars. This is the rage—attention-seeking, misdirected—of the “misunderstood” bourgeois artist.
It is difficult to extricate oneself from the art one found meaningful in youth. Like all kinds of belief, taste begins to calcify at a certain point, and you have to learn how to own it rather than be embarrassed by it. This is the legacy of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”: I cannot quite get away from it, though there are times I want to. It is now a question of living with its central feeling—rage—and through whatever alchemy I can, turning it toward productive means. Righteous anger is still just anger. So, one hopes to add to it the soberness that sometimes comes with growing older. Time is never time at all, isn’t that how it goes? You think your past is on the other side of the ocean and then you turn a corner and there it is, unexpectedly staring you in the face—both alien and familiar. One hopes to listen; to be patient; to be kind; to do the humble work that is required for any real change to take place. To move from feeling, to critique, to action. For Corgan, it is all about him, but there is no reason we need to find ourselves uncritically reflecting this.
Still, there will be days when you find yourself trapped, when things seem meaningless. There will be days when you are worn down and the fire begins to die. And on those days, you must return to the dawn of it. Pull that dull brick that holds the ones and zeroes that form the strange passageway to that girl, emerging from a star—an entire galaxy of feeling. You must put your headphones in your ears, or turn the volume up on your speakers, and shout along with this strange, ridiculous, pallid man in order to ensure that the embers never fade . . .
Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage . . .
And I still believe that I cannot be saved
Ian Maxton is a writer and an MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University. He lives in the Midwest with his wife and their two cats.