Category Archives: The Soundtracks of Our Adolescence

Damn you Michael Gira

Part of my late highschool soundtrack was Swans.  I was introduced to them by way of their 1994 album, The Great Annihilator, which was their temporary (har har) “swan song” – what with it being the last classic Swans line up of Gira and Jarboe.  Since it was released by Invisible Records (later to be reclaimed by Gira’s own Young Gods label), and because I was then a Pigface fan and into anything Invisible released, I dubbed it from a friend and then listened to it over and over and over.  I remained a Swans fan for years, slowly accumulating their past discography, and was extremely excited when Gira rebooted them in 2012 with The Seer.  Lord, I was such a fan that I followed Gira and Jarboe’s side projects.  And three years before The Seer was released, right before I defended my doctorate, one of the last live shows I attended (I’ve actually lost interest in seeing bands live because I’m getting lazy) was a Gira solo performance – preceded by James Blake – at the Drake in Toronto.

All of this is to say that it is massively disappointing when an essential part of your adolescent, and indeed post-adolescent, soundtrack is undermined by the reality that your beloved artist is a fucker.  Here, in case my readers are unaware, I’m talking about the recent statements made by Larkin Grimm, a musician formerly part of the Young Gods family, about how Gira raped her years back.  And then, because she was upset about being raped (because apparently she shouldn’t have been), dropped her from his label.

Look, I know that there’s a school of thought out there that says we should separate the work of art from the artist – maybe following a death of the author line of thought – and I really get that.  We talk about the same thing in critical thinking, warning students about circumstantial ad hominems and how, regardless of a person’s circumstances and interests, it is fallacious to use this as an excuse not to judge an argument on its own merits.  So maybe dismissing Gira’s music because of these rape accusations, and that they are most probably (according to an inference from the best explanation) not baseless allegations, is some kind of ad hominem art criticism.  Obviously there are a lot of artists I enjoy who did extremely problematic things in their life times – and obviously I don’t think Tolstoy’s work should be dismissed because he was an abusive patriarchal asshole – but when it comes to artists in the present, and not dead assholes whose work now stands over and above their dismal lives, I cannot help but find it difficult to separate their work from their practices and commitments.  Take Burzum, for example: the first time I heard them, before I was given a name to look up or told about Varg Vikernes, I thought the music was brilliant… But the moment I learned about Vikernes’ beliefs and activities there was no way I could stomach the music no matter how interesting it was (though, confession time, I have a guilty soft spot for Chelsea Wolfe’s cover of “Black Spell of Destruction” – is this liberalism because it’s slightly removed, thus allowing me to avoid the epistemic fallacy?) because Varg’s a fucking fascist.  So yeah, my desire to listen to Swans now, which has been part of playlist for twenty years, has utterly evaporated.

I want to pause here, because I suspect I’m going to get a random google-warrior wandering onto this post chastising me about believing in these so-called “allegations”, and explain why Larkin Grimm’s accusations are convincing.  Leaving aside the fact that, despite what MRAs falsely maintain, false rape accusations aren’t endemic – that is, while they do happen they are statistically miniscule – an inference to the best explanation should lead us to believe Grimm’s account over Gira’s denial.  First of all, Grimm has nothing to gain from making this accusation: it came out, years later, because she had accused someone else of sexual harassment and realized that, in order to be consistent, she should be open about Gira even though, if she had made it to “get” something (because in the mind of the rape denier these claims are made to get things, whatever these things are) then it would have made much more sense to make it when she was dropped from Gira’s label rather than, as is consistent with rape victims who have been victimized by people they respected, living with the trauma and making excuses for the rapist; since she made this statement about Gira she has been re-victimized by the typical rape-sheltering abuse of online fans of Gira – why the hell would anyone that? – which anyone with half-a-brain would know would happen the moment such an accusation is made.  Men in position of power, even if it is in a small corner of indie fandom, are able to count on fans leaping to their defense.  Grimm’s silence for years is consistent with the profile of a woman who experienced the trauma of victimization and was scared to speak out about a man who wielded a certain amount of power in the indie music community of which she was a part.  The only argument that undermines the fact that she wouldn’t be aware of this cost-benefit analysis is some bullshit appeal to female hysteria, and fuck that.

Secondly, Gira’s second statement regarding Grimm’s accusations is pretty bloody revealing.  Earlier, supported by his partner, Gira referred to Grimm’s accusations as a “slanderous lie” and went to great lengths to deny any form of sexual encounter with Grimm, implying that she was obsessed with him, that he was a poor beleaguered dude dealing with a fangirl, and that no sort of sexual interaction happened.  And then suddenly he makes another statement, undermining his previous claims, that there was an intimate encounter… That sort of resembles precisely what Grimm claimed only that it was consensual and he didn’t rape her when she was sleeping.  Of course his current statement spins it so that it was just a romantic tryst, but it’s pretty telling that he initially denied this but is now providing a distorted non-rapey version of her “slanderous” story.  Good Lord, now he even agrees with Larkin that he said “this doesn’t feel right” in the moment of rape, only with him it’s not rape but a consensual affair.  This is seriously creepy.

Okay, with the inference to the best explanation out of the way, back to the problem of listening to Swans in the wake of this event.  When I was kid getting into all of these indie and underground bands, one of the things that drew me to them was that, unlike the shitty mainstream music, they were cool.  But it’s not very cool to think about the artist behind the music raping women when they sleep – that is the very essence, and violently so, of lame – just as it is not cool to realize that an artist is committed to a fascist politics.  Hell, I stopped finding Thurston Moore cool when he cheated on Kim Gordon in such a way that he ended up looking like a creepy old dude, and the only reason I still find Sonic Youth to be cool is because of Kim Gordon and not because of Thurston Moore. And thinking of Gira as a rapey dude is far worse than this; it renders his music obnoxious.  He ends up being the same as all those sad mainstream fuckers who take advantage of their groupies because they believe they have the right to use women who like their work.

Part of me wants to believe that I can listen to Michael Gira’s work pre-2008, and thus still appreciate the old Swans catalogue, since it is prior to the moment where he “allegedly” raped Grimm.  Sadly, but far less sad for me than it is for women like Grimm who have had to deal with this bullshit for years, this part of my life’s soundtrack has been irrevocably ruined.  As one of my good friends texted me upon hearing about this controversy: “I feel like it’s a matter of time before basically all of the male artists I like will turn out to be scumbag rapists.”  Yeah, who next?

Remembering Sonic Youth

I picked up Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl In A Band, from the library today and am already half finished… which is something of a surprise because I usually find autobiographies and biographies difficult to read quickly, especially if they’re about artists/musicians rather than historical figures such as Mao, Lenin, or Luxemburg.  My enjoyment of the memoir, in retrospect, isn’t really that surprising.  Sonic Youth is one of the bands I have followed since I was twelve, and whose albums I return to time and time again, and many of the other bands I followed were bands that were connected to, influenced, or cited by Sonic Youth.  (For example, I got into Bikini Kill because Gordon was something of a rock-and-roll godmother to Kathleen Hanna.)

Like many, in the year before Gordon released her memoir, I was slightly devastated by the end of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s marriage, which of course signalled the end of Sonic Youth.  The memoir speaks to all of this, placing Gordon’s experience as a founding member of Sonic Youth and the eventual end of that experience, in the context of multiple art and music scenes.  Most importantly, it makes me want to listen to all of my Sonic Youth albums again – and to go out and download those albums that I only possessed on cassette (given away a year ago with all of my cassettes to the local Goodwill).  Indeed, after reading the first five chapters while my daughter was watching television, I pulled out the first Sonic Youth album I could find on my CD shelf (Washing Machine) and put it on so that my daughter, who loves rock and roll (her words, in fact, like the Joan Jett song: “I love rock and roll!”), could dance out her energy.

Up until eighth grade, my music tastes were formed by the artists in my parents’ and my friends’ parents’ record collections.  I didn’t like most of what I heard on the radio station and instead, like my two best friends, spent all of my time listening to the Beatles, Dylan, Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, and other 1960s/70s artists.  A slight exception was made, in sixth and seventh grade, for Guns and Roses, but I never saved up my allowance money to buy Appetite for Destruction – I just liked playing air guitar to “Sweet Child of Mine” and that was about it.  But in eighth grade, when my best friend’s older brothers were getting into “cool” contemporary music, I started getting into contemporary bands and musicians that excited me more than the music I’d simply absorbed from my parents’ generation.  One of the first three albums I bought that was not from the 60s/70s was Goo.  (The other two, and I can’t remember which of the three I bought first, were the Cure’s Disintegration and Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet.)

Sonic Youth thus occupies an important place in my music-developmental education; they dominated the soundtrack of my teenage years.  Like, for example, when I finally made the jump from cassettes to CDs (can’t recall if it was 10th or 11th grade) and Sonic Youth formed the bridge of this jump: Dirty was my last (non-dubbed) cassette, Experimental Jet Set was my first CD.  For a while I would get Sonic Youth albums as birthday presents each year.

(Weird thing is, I never saw them in concert.  Back in those days I saw a lot of bands in concert, even taking trips to Toronto to see the ones that wouldn’t play London Ontario, but I missed out on Sonic Youth.  I’m not precisely sure why I failed to see them in concert, why they were no more than a soundtrack and there was no encounter with the metaphorical man behind the curtain.)

Since my musical interests were located in Sonic Youth, I never cared too much about Nirvana.  When Nevermind took the radio stations by storm, and everyone was talking about “alternative music” and “grunge”, I had already been listening to Goo for months so I was less impressed.  I had even heard Bleach, thanks to that friend’s older brothers, and was not really that excited.  I was more excited by the Jesus Lizard, and kind of saw this Nirvana garage band revival as something that was derivative Sonic Youth, who I preferred.  This isn’t to say I disliked Nirvana, but only that I liked Dirty more than In Utero – and that the latter is important to me only insofar as it introduced me to Steve Albini, and thus Big Black and Shellac.

In many ways, Sonic Youth typified the dissonance of my teenaged years and paralleled my interests.  When I got into Burroughs and Ginsberg, as a lot of high school kids looking for “cool” literature did, I was excited to discover that Sonic Youth possessed similar interests.  And later, in the early days of university, when I began to follow the avant garde noise music that my city possessed some historical cache in promoting (the Nihilist Spasm Band of the 1960s/70s being significant in this regard) I was shocked to discover that London’s “No Music Festival” was frequented by Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo.

I would also like to think that Sonic Youth’s place in my adolescent soundtrack contributed to the politics I would eventually adopt.  While I’m not under the impression that they were a bunch of communists pursuing revolution – nor do I really care since I appreciate them primarily for their music – there was that line of Gordon’s in “Kool Thing” that intrigued my twelve year old self: “are you gonna liberate us girls from male white corporate oppression?”  And that question, like so much of Sonic Youth, seemed pretty fucking cool.