When I met Michael Gira last year, he graced my hand with a kiss. He had just finished playing with Swans at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and the kiss felt like a prize for enduring his exhausting set. The guys who’d come with me to the show didn’t make it through the gauntlet and had ditched early, but I’d survived to see the merch booth. There stood Gira, somehow a mortal human, nonchalantly mingling with fans as if he hadn’t just pummeled us with relentless, soaring noise. And then, the kiss.
I have bragged about this story ever since. As an atheist, Swans shows are the closest thing I’ve ever felt to a religious experience: a truly righteous din pouring from a wall of amps, music made with near-evangelical fury, Gira playing both Heavenly Father and the Devil of sonic pain. Swans redefined for me what live music should feel like, their sheer volume and blistering intensity rumbling and reverberating straight through my chest. In short, I loved them, and I loved them deeply. So when Gira pressed his lips to my hand that night, it was akin to a dark blessing.
Now that memory is tinged with disgust. On Friday, singer-songwriter Larkin Grimm came forward to allege that Gira had raped her as they worked together on her 2008 album, Parplar. I read with a heavy rage as she described the rape itself and the months of harassment she says followed. Her mentor became her tormentor, and she says that when she finally confronted Gira about the assault, he dropped her from his label, Young God Records. Grimm says her career never fully recovered. I was livid. A hero had betrayed me, and as I look back on the dark confessions he made throughout his music, it is now through a damning lens.
Because Swans were on hiatus in the mid-Aughts, they were not my entry point into Gira’s work. I listened first to his haunting, Americana-tinged side project, Angels of Light. Though sonically they were much less punishing than Swans, their lyrics were just as brutal and nihilistic, the violence and despair here nestled in cello and dulcimer. The songs made a multitude of references to mothers and daughters, those roles women must fulfill for many men to want to care about our safety. Gira’s fascination with feminine forces, though, doesn’t seem to have inspired him to have compassion toward us, and I often overlooked lyrics I might otherwise consider questionable. On “Real Person,” an Angels of Light song off their 1999 record, New Mother, the first album of theirs I owned on vinyl, Gira makes a strange, accusatory admission: “You gave me a reason for lust/And I will find a way to access your secrets/No surface can deter my evil.” The song is a step-by-step guide on how to dehumanize someone, but it’s also a dirge bemoaning inhumane actions. I knew, of course, that no matter how moral, we all possess something dark, wounded, and vengeful. The song terrified me because I could see myself as both the dehumanizer and the dehumanized.
When Swans re-emerged in 2012, they were a balance between their previous iteration and Angels of Light, more complex but still punishingly loud. Gira seemed to me like a highly evolved guru who examined the darkness of the human heart to help the rest of us channel and release it. I found that listening to Swans made me feel genderless. Or, the fact that I could appreciate this band — full of aggression and ambiguity and ugliness, things women aren’t supposed to embody — made me feel somehow like my gender was incidental or unimportant. Like I was just a default human. Instead of feeling othered I could simply touch the angry, animalistic tendencies we all encounter simply because we are alive. Swans’ unrelenting drone and meditative repetition expressed something universal, and their noise was there to embrace anyone who could bear to listen. On “Mother of the World” Gira’s shallow gasps were like a yogic chant, a twisted version of the Lamaze-class breathing that helps birth us into this irreconcilably harsh world. He never glorified violence, per se, but he never really castigated it, either. He just exposed the ugly and wretched; he let it writhe before us without comment, and that felt like a necessary part of the exorcism.
In light of Grimm’s accusations, this ambivalence toward cruelty feels disingenuous. Grimm characterizes her relationship to Gira during their work on Parplar as a platonic “love affair” between mentor and protégée that she did not want to consummate. But Gira produced the record. Gira owned the label. Gira had been seen as a visionary for more than two decades at that point. The power imbalance was already in place, making any “love affair” one of skewed dynamics. With very few women owning labels or producing records, female musicians face the predicament of enlisting men in a professional capacity to help them create work that often leaves them emotionally vulnerable. When those men interpret our professional passion as personal, our choices feel limited to going along with it or risking career suicide, with none of the recourse or protections that women in more professional settings have for speaking out against sexual harassment. Gira had nothing to lose in this situation, and Grimm lost everything.
In a statement released after Grimm’s post, Gira made it clear that he believes what happened was a consensual mistake. In 2016, when consent and assault make music headlines almost every week, that is not an acceptable excuse, especially from someone who’s spent his career making music that brings every demon into the light. He has been a willing centerpiece for his own dark narratives. And that is what makes it so terrible that he can’t empathize with Grimm or acknowledge his ignorance about consent. Whatever catharsis I found in his work previously now has an asterisk next to it, and I’m not sure I’ll feel safe enough at his shows to let my guard down and enjoy the cleansing noise. Swans fans skew male, and many of them are responding to Grimm’s allegations with blind faith in Gira and, in very troubling cases, by lashing out at Grimm. My gender has been brought into one of the few equations where it didn’t used to matter.
The day after she shared her story, Grimm posted a follow-up saying she’d received many messages “from sweet, confused men asking, ‘I did this thing once that I don’t feel comfortable about. Am I a rapist?’ ” Throughout her ordeal, Grimm has been remarkably compassionate toward Gira and his supporters, often appearing in the comments below her own posts to explain further or join discussions. But the onus should be on Gira, not her, to engage in that dialogue. He’s dedicated his career to illuminating humanity’s darkest tendencies. He should reckon with his own, too.