Chasing Swans / by Ed Godsell

I had a minor musical miracle recently.  It revolves around an American band by the name of Swans.  I thought I would relate it.

 Swans are an American outfit headed my Michael Gira.  Their music is intense in the extreme, it is at once brutal, terrifying, ecstatic, beautiful and very powerful.  My good friend Valentine M. Griffin put me onto them.   I'm listening to them now as I write this.  In some way this band changed my life though I know how that sounds.  Here is how it happened.

About 4 years ago Valentine told me he was going to Amsterdam to see them play in a super venue for live music.  I'd never usually go to such lengths to see a band but for some reason I decided to join him that time, and i'm damn glad I did.

When we got to Amsterdam and walked around the city I noticed there were posters everywhere for a large Documentary festival and selling market called IDFA.  Shamefully enough for a man who works in that field I had never heard of IDFA before.  I soon found out it was one of the worlds largest documentary festivals.  I had just finished making my first televised documentary so I went into full on mode and decided to involve myself as much as possible while I was there, to meet as many people as possible, to see films and to see if I could find a buyer for my film.  I got myself accredited and then went to the Swans gig... which completely blew me away.

Swans gigs are known for their intensity and many fans wear ear plugs so not to damage their hearing.  People can wretch from the sheer power of the music.  It leaves the audience ecstatic after wave after wave assaults you and you submit to it.  It can be a very physical, even spiritual experience.

After the gig myself and Valentine found a film party in the city.  It was a party for a Korean documentary about the bizarre Korean K-Pop phenomenon, and by the time we arrived there were Korean women dancing wildly on tables to the inanity of crazy K-Pop music.  I met the Producer of the film who was in flying form and was with a Serbian friend of his that he had stayed with in Belgrade, where he learned to ride a white horse and play the Trumpet.  The Serb was a real character, as Sebs usually can be.  He stood lurking outside the door of the party where we met him and started to chat.  I think he liked the novelty of meeting two bearded Irishmen in their winter wooly hats at a Korean party in AmsterdamBoris told me about a new  film that he was just about embark on, a film about the concept of Nothingness.

His idea intrigued me and we got on well from the start so Boris asked me to participate in his film, where he was seeking Cinematographers from all over the world to send him video shots of what they considered to be examples of 'Nothingness' from our unique viewpoint.  I happily took the challenge, Boris forwarded me literature about the ideas of Nothing in philosophical, artistic and scientific terms.  I wallowed in it.  I began to search for Nothingness wherever I found myself after that and ultimately sent him shots from not just Ireland but India, Gaza, Ukraine etc.  Boris is finishing his film finally now and none other than Iggy Pop is doing the voice over narration to the film.  Iggy Pop is narrating over my shots.... I'll admit I'm pretty happy with that.

A year after the gig I found myself in Kosovo to attend a course that was teaching Freelance Photographers, Journalists and Cameramen who work in 'hostile territories' how to survive all kinds of mishaps, from gunshot wounds to heat stroke to psychological breakdown.  When I finished in Kosovo I wanted to meet Boris in his home town in Serbia but for some reason the border was blocked so I had a choice of travelling through either Montenegro or Macedonia.  Two countries I knew virtually nothing about.   I decided, for some reason, on Macedonia.

Skopje in Macedonia is home to the greatest volume of Nothingness I have ever seen.  The Skopje 2014 project to redesign the capital in a crass and bizarre mix of architectural styles and a phenomenal amounts of statues of people no-one has ever heard of is a truly surreal thing to witness.  I was meant to leave the following morning on the train to Belgrade but I decided to go for a beer.  In the old Ottoman part of the city I came across some really nice bars that were playing surprisingly good music and so I hung around for a bit, marvelling in how interesting the place was, how friendly the people were and how cheap the beer was.

It was at that point that I saw the woman who changed my life forever.  I decided to postpone Belgrade and spent the next two weeks travelling the country with Angie.  We fell in love and she is the reason I live in Macedonia now.  My whole life changed as result of meeting Angie is Skopje.   

Last January I saw that Swans were touring for the last time and Skopje was on the list.  I had a visa only for three months and Swans were playing towards the end of my visa limit.  It was pretty amazing that they were playing Skopje at all as most bands skip over it due to inability to make much money from ticket sales... but they were coming and it was my last chance to see them before they broke up.  I would leave the country after the gig and return only after three months when a could get a new visa for Macedonia.

As the date of the gig  drew nearer I became concerned that the timing was slightly off.  I became confused as to when I had to leave Macedonia as I had entered and exited a few times.  I heard that if I overstayed my visa I would be taken to court, fined and barred from the country for a year.  I couldn't risk it but I didn't want to miss my chance to see Swans one last time.   I went o great lengths to find out if my visa stretched to the date of the gig, I even ended up in the notoriously Kafka-esque '9th floor' of the government building where they know everything and nothing. (More on that place later)    Finally I found out from a kindly lady in the 9th floor that the date of the gig was the date I had to leave, exactly.   I tortured myself as to whether to risk it or not and decided I had to leave.   The gig was played the very day my plane left.  I would never see Swans again.  It just wasn't meant to be.

I put it out of my mind and 2 months later when back in Ireland and Swans well and truly forgotten, my good friend Valantine M. Griffin once more called me.  This time to say that he was going to Dublin to see The Swans play!  They weren't scheduled to play any gigs at all in Ireland but a gig had cancelled on them in Russia and they somehow decided to come all the way to Ireland to fill the date!  I couldn't believe my luck... I cancelled whatever plans i had and made my way to Dublin the next day with Val.  When I got to the gig the only place I could fit was right beside the speaker at he front of the stage.  The music burst throughly body with an intensity that I allowed myself wallow in, each hit of the Bass drum was a punch in the chest, the guitar and keyboards bored into my skull and Michael Gira's droning voice permeated my soul.   After an hour or so of the intensity I began to feel heightened.  Images and memories passed through my mind, feelings of love and fear, memories of loved ones, some  passed and some still with me.  I felt for a friend who I knew to be at that moment alone and suffering terribly from PTSD in a lonely hotel room in Istanbul after an extensive period covering the war against ISIS in Iraq.  I prayed for him as the sound waves passed over me and bathed me in the glory and power of sound.    It was meant to be.  And had I not gone to see Swans with my good friend Valentine M. Griffin in Amsterdam those four years ago God knows where I'd be now but I know that my life is immeasurably better since then.

Thank you Michael Gira.  You met me and Valentine in Cork city many years ago when we were youngsters and you played a solo gig in a lovely and now defunct venue called the Lobby bar.  I remember well how you were so kind to the young audience in the intimate surroundings, you told Valantine that he was doing a good thing by studying Roman Literature in College just when he needed to hear some encouraging worlds like that.