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Epiphanies

the Wire (UK) | March 2005 #253 | M. Gira

written by Michael Gira

Michael Gira/Swans/Angels of Light In 1967 I was, if I may say, a beautiful 13-year-old California Boy with long blond hair and I lived in an idyllic beachside suburb of Los Angeles.

When not in school ­ which I ditched regularly anyway ­ I was at the beach, at the local park where the freaks gathered, or along the Strand in Venice, where one might occasionally watch the Hell¹s Angels randomly pummel an errant hippie. I avidly consumed the music of The Doors, The Seeds, Love, Country Joe And The Fish (I can still hear Sweet Lorraine ­ though I haven¹t listened to it since) and especially, The Mothers Of Invention. Zappa was my idol. His snide rejection of all things "plastic" (Ha! Ha!), the freaked out weirdness of the music, and his gnarled appearance formed an attractive opposite to my sunny surroundings. Unfortunately, I was also an enthusiastic consumer of another lure of hippie culture ­ drugs: Seconal, Nembutal, Benzedrine, Methedrine, and naturally, LSD. I studiously counted each dose of the latter and by 13 had tripped 200 times. I had a taste for anything chemical and mind churning ­ a rag dipped into the gas tank of a car served just as well as the inhaled fumes of Energine Spot Remover ­ with acid, this made for the ultimate in stupefaction. I had zero parental supervision. My mother, in whose care I resided, was a deeply committed alcoholic. She spent day and night sitting at her desk drinking in solitude ­ hallucinating and bitterly cursing with alarming eloquence the day my father (who¹d absconded) was born. Drugs were bought with money stolen from her unguarded purse and by selling her jewels, cameras, and our family collection of rare silver dollars. This couldn¹t go on forever. After several arrests for vandalism and general juvenile delinquency, I was expelled from my Junior High School for smashing the plate glass window of the Vice Principal¹s office and was soon arrested again, this time stumbling and nearly comatose in a vacant lot with a baggy full of Reds (Seconal capsules) dangling from my hand. That was it. The authorities set their ultimatum: either my father would come and get me or I would be taken from my mother and placed in a Juvenile Facility indefinitely.

He soon arrived, twisted my ear with military precision, and took me first to Indiana for a year (don¹t ask), and then to Paris, France, where he¹d landed a job as a business consultant. It was 1969 now, and Paris was in the hedonistic afterglow of the student revolts. I did the right thing and promptly ran away. I survived for a time panhandling on the Pont Neuf, and was then taken under the wing of a group of feral Italian hippies. The leader had a mucus-encrusted beard, yellow curling fingernails, wore a mangy afghan coat, and carried a white rat on his shoulder. We all had lice. We ate leftover food from cafes, begged, drew inept chalk drawings on the sidewalk for tourists, and slept in abandoned buildings. After a few weeks word came of a huge music festival happening in Belgium. We split Paris and hitch hiked up to our psychedelic Mecca. We landed in cold mud, cow dung, and straw, with thousands of other steaming and mouldy hippies. I was continuously and ravenously hungry, but somehow drugs never seemed to be a problem. They were everywhere. I have no idea what impression the music would have made without them.

The line up included the following: Pink Floyd, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, Captain Beefheart, The Nice, Pretty Things, Archie Shepp, Soft Machine, and my idol, Frank Zappa. This might sound like a Wire reader¹s wet dream, but I confess I remember only a few key moments. The first is a SCREAM, courtesy of Pink Floyd. Sprawled in the dirt, I heard an amorphous, gathering tide of orchestral, but soothing sound. Then, suddenly everything erupted ­ cued by the scream ­ as if you¹d been mindlessly drifting in warm water, hallucinating, and a lunatic beast is now attacking you with a butcher knife, flinging shards of your body up to heaven. Wonderful! It¹s ³Careful With That Axe, Eugene², of course, though I didn¹t know it at the time. I doubt I¹d ever even heard of Pink Floyd. All I know is it sent shockwaves of really, really bad vibes through my spine and the sensation was quite pleasurable indeed. It sprayed fountains of cleansing sulfuric acid on the filthy crowd. They needed it. I¹ve never forgotten that moment (second?). It was the first instance I realised music could be more than a recitation and could actually alter you in a direct, experiential way. The only other time I¹ve experienced a musical/sonic sensation that complete is with the music of Glenn Branca, much, much later. And, oh yes, Frank Zappa sat in with Pink Floyd on another song, and it truly, truly sucked. I lost interest in him forever right there. At that age, I had no reference or critical sensibility, but I hated guitar solos. This one intruded on the music in a stupid, ego-driven way, and he deflated before my eyes. Hilariously, the local troll-activists were waving banners while he played, calling him a capitalist for demanding money to perform ­ what did they expect?

But, the most indelible moment was the rousing reception the Art Ensemble Of Chicago received. Imagine a steady rumble of what¹s now called skronk I guess ­ not loud, but persistent and undeniably intense, a ricochet of conflicting noises to most ears. I was gone, spinning on acid and had just smoked a massive arm-sized spliff, feeling the first deep tug of nausea as a result. But I was in it, right there with them, my fellow countrymen, just a blond haired kid from California down in the mud in a sea of ugly and increasingly scary troglodytes. Then, THE SOUND: a BIG low murmur, an endless exhalation of stinking gas. THE ENTIRE CROWD WAS BOOING ­ a sustained, deep drone of simian intolerance. They all chimed in, thousands of them ­ cows rising from a narcotic slumber, feeding each other¹s ugliness. It was and remains the most hideous and simultaneously mesmerising sound I¹ve ever heard. I felt it reverberating in my belly (and reverberate it did: I threw up a psychedelic breakfast right there into my lap). I have measured everything I¹ve done professionally against that amazing, unstoppable sound ever since. Ha! Ha! It was a warning, but I have to say, it also had a very seductive quality to it.

The new Angels of Light album "The Angels Of Light Sing "Other People" is out this month on Young God Records. www.younggodrecords.com
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