As has probably been pretty evident, I got way back into SWANS in the past couple of years. While I'd been a fan of theirs since the late 80's or so, the band's more recent, post-reactivation output -- specifically 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky and 2012's sprawling The Seer -- achieves that rarified feat of being not only worthy of the name SWANS, but both of those albums rank among the best work the band has ever released.
As such, while I'd been comparatively passive in my appreciation of them in the past, their more recent trajectory prompted me to delve deeper into the minutia of their back history. On The Seer, there's an jarringly discordant instrumental track called "93 Ave B Blues." Given that the band largely cut its teeth (pardon the Filth-alluding pun) during their early years in the East Village and Lower East Side (alongside their primary peers in Sonic Youth), it made perfect sense that they might be inclined to namecheck certain locales that had some special resonance for them (in much the same way, say, Bob Dylan wrote a song called "Positively 4th Street," Sonic Youth called one their albums Murray Street, Iggy Pop issued an album called Avenue B, Cop Shoot Cop released a b-side called "Queen of Shinbone Alley," etc., etc.), but I'd been largely unaware of the significance of 93 Avenue B until fairly recently.
It's already a storied strip. As cited above, Iggy Pop used to live a few blocks to the north in the Christodora House. Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators opened up his awesome punk rock bar, Manitoba's, at 99 Avenue B sometime in the very late 90's, if memory serves (prior to that, he tended bar at 2A on -- wait for it -- Second Street and Avenue A). On a personal level, I knew two good friends who lived in the building just above Handsome Dick's place. We'd spend many an evening on the building's roof, drinking cheap beer and staring south at the amazing view of Manhattan, but that's another story. Across the street is Vazac's Horseshoe Bar, another amazing landmark worthy of its own post at some point.
On the ground floor of 93 Avenue B is the somewhat torturously cheesy looking hookah bar called Horus, festooned with shlocky Egyptian art all over its exterior. But the building itself, it turns out, was SWANS' chief base of operations for many years. It was here that Michael Gira and Jarboe lived during the recording of several of the band's albums. It's also rumored that Gira lent space to Henry Rollins during his early forays into what became his solo career.
In researching Gira's time at this address, I found him referring to it in a couple of times. Here's what he's had to say about it from this interview:
I lived on 6th street and Avenue B for fourteen years. I moved in there in 1981. It was a windowless storefront that only had a portal in the very back. It was a lightless environment. I couldn't hear what was going on outside. It had a sense of unreality. Once I locked myself in with some quarts of Budwieser. Because of all the speed my teeth were rotting. I started looking at my gums, convinced that there was something in there. I spent forty-eight hours picking at my gums in the mirror. Before you knew it, the sink was full of toothpicks and my face was swollen.
And, again, from this interview:
PSF: One track that really intrigued me was “93 Ave B Blues"- it seemed really novel and different. Is there a story behind that?
Gira: [laughs] Sort of. That started out as this improv thing we used to do as an encore on the last tour, it is uncharacteristic for us, but I liked it quite a bit. 93 Ave B is the place where I lived with Jarboe from 1981 to 1992. That's where Swans rehearsed for its whole New York tenure, so that was like placing a name on [the song] that had some sentimental resonance and also was referring to this improv piece on the Stooges' Funhouse album called “L.A. Blues."
PSF: Was this the famous bunker in New York you lived in with Jarboe for a number of years?
Gira: That was the address. It no longer exists. The whole building's been gutted and now it's some fancy restaurant, but at the time it was not fancy [laughs]. It was called a bunker for a reason. [People who practiced santeria] used to put little bags with chicken feet and some other kind of hex. I went to a local botanica and the lady there told me it was curse for me. It must have worked [laughs]. That space used to be a Puerto Rican Pentecostal church where santeria intermingled with it. I don't know how. Hearing our music coming out of the space must have bummed people out a lot because it was very loud on the street when we played [laughs]. The upstairs neighbor wasn't too pleased either.
In any case, on Sunday, I found myself in Tompkins Square Park, just wandering around and taking pictures, and it occurred to me that I was but a stone's throw from 93 Avenue B, so I walked on over. I can't say I recall how the exterior looked back in the 80's and 90's, but I'm dead sure it owes nothing to its incarnation as the SWANS' bunker today. But I wanted to check it out all the same.
I didn't expect there to be any remaining morsel of relevance alluding to SWANS' long-gone tenure at the address, but just as I was walking away from the front door, I happened to glance down at my feet, and that's when I noticed the spiral carved into the concrete.
A recurring visual motif in the iconography of SWANS dating back to at least 1987's Children of God album, the coiled, spiral was as synonymous with the name SWANS as Gira's teeth from the Filth sleeve or the vaguely disturbing, bloodthirsty bunnies from the White Light from the Mouth of Infinity/Love of Life era.
I can't begin to imagine who etched that design into the pavement just in front of the entrance to 93 Avenue B -- whether it was Gira himself, Jarboe or some devoted fanboy -- but I love that it's there as a reminder of what once took place behind that door.