SWA: Let’s Ball!

20 May

As if my first post at PIG STATE RECON didn’t emphasize this point enough: SST RECORDS are a seemingly endless font of musical and cultural beauty, one that my skinny head can’t ever seem to get enough of. With this in mind, I will now embark on an occasional series of musical re-evalutations, focusing on historically maligned/ignored artists inextricably connected to the mighty SST RECORDS. And what better way to inaugurate this series, but by discussing SWA?

Except, today . . . I’m going to let Darren Cifarelli do it for me. He knows even better than I.

The following text (known locally as “The SWA Defense Piece”) was first published by Darren in 2004 as a lengthy comment to a post on Jay Hinman’s music blog, AGONY SHORTHAND (R.I.P. – he’s now moved on to DETAILED TWANG). At the time, it aroused much confusion, consternation, and eventually some begrudging praise among a bunch of jaded/uptight folks who roundly despised all things SWA. Me, I looked on and loved it. As I do all things SWA.

Sometime in the intervening years, The SWA Defense Piece was erased from cyberspace during a blogspot hiccup of some sort. But today, Darren’s words return with a vengeance – in your face, where they rightfully belong. Please, do read on – I guarantee you’ll never listen to SWA the same way again.


Merrill and Chuck

In Defense of SWA: A Scholarly Inquiry into the NATURE of all things SWA

Some of my best memories….

[I must state that I was most likely the one guy in the audience at most of the underattended shows described in these posts. SWA was a total obsession for me.]

“Everything is but the sum of its effects. What something is, whether it be sex or madness, depends altogether on the concerns of interpreters who make things cohere, who create compositions, discourses, and connections, who construct genealogies by composing narratives.” –Nietzsche, Of Genealogy

“When people are used as society’s tools then history shows in turn we will learn that mass confusion rules.” –SWA

Background info (unknown source): “In philosophy and politics the postmodernists see reason, progress, scientific truth, and democracy as just (to use J.F. Lyotard’s expression) “meta-narratives”, big stories the Western world has told itself to convince itself that it’s better than the rest of the world and has a right to the resources and leadership of the world. The belief in objective Truth is a product of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, of a faith in economic and technological progress, and is expressed in the optimistic humanism that ruled the modern Western world for so long. Derrida calls this faith “logocentrism”, the West’s centering its philosophical and political vision on universally valid rational beliefs. The postmodernist wishes to take apart this faith, to substitute local stories for these meta-narratives, to make truth an individual rather than a social phenomena.”

So SWA crawled out of that pond. But wait, wait.

STEVE ALBINI? Steve Albini was himself a joke. Note the frequent references to his ineptitude in the Letters section of FE. Virtually every issue of FE is overloaded with Albini-slander; for instance, “I don’t care if Albini condemns entire genres of music about which he knows next to nothing…” (FE#11, p. 8). What Robert Fripp was to Creem Magazine in the 70s, Steve Albini was to Forced Exposure in the 80s: a pompous, conceited, pretentious ass who served no purpose other than as object of ridicule. That same issue lists “Be SWA” as #17 in a list of “The Most Pathetic Things a Man Can Do (in order of Pathos).” #6 is “Write about rock music” and #8 is “Write about anything besides rock music.” “Listen to SWA” is not mentioned. Personally, I followed Coley’s and Meltzer’s picks more closely than Albini’s. [On a side note, Big Black’s Songs About Fucking suffered from some of the same misinterpretation that SWA suffers from, parody heard literally, yet toying, nevertheless, with the same notions of labeling, pastiche, unfunny jokes, contextualization, and expectations.] That SWA’s music fell on deaf ears is unquestionable. Were their music labeled otherwise, it would rank more highly. The death of LA’s post-punk music scene left a gaping hole devoid of meaning, of significance, highlighted by SSTs declining experimentalism and open-mindedness, as indexed by the signing of Flag clones Bl’ast, and as represented by critical responses to SWA. Don’t deny; don’t forget Dukowski.

Hall of Mirrors. Who establishes the criteria, and upon what are they based? Has intertextuality not, as Frederic Jameson argues, reached such proportions that representations merely refer to other representations and deny the authentic? Authenticity, while intangible especially when applied to the musical output of Los Angeles in the 80s, gave way to derivativeness. There were those who took their derivativeness seriously, and those who those who stepped outside the confines of prescription. SWA simulated reality in such a way that no referent applied, denying the ground, the roots, and the sources that many see them as duplicating. They operated outside the logic of representation, reflecting reflections of reflections only to reflect white light of unknown origin.

Sylvia and Merrill


1. Play several sped-up Mingus & Haden unaccompanied bass solos over a drum beat, loud.
2. Play your Metal Machine Music LP louder than your speakers can handle (don’t shred them, just add some natural distortion).
3. Invite any random madman to scream through a megaphone at you.
4. Walk around in sticky puddles of beer.

SWA is Postmodern. It decenters the limited universe of LA music and challenges what had become a stale, formulaic approach to music. In literature and literary theory, postmodernism is “a cool response to the triumph of modern technology and science, especially electronic and communication technology, over older or more isolated world views. Postmodernist literature showcases the disjointed, the nonlinear. From Umberto Eco’s exploration of the medieval spirit in his The Name of the Rose to William Gibson’s skewed vision of the future of the computer revolution in his cyberpunk novels from Neuromancer on, postmodern fiction wanders through dark worlds and alternative paradigms, worlds foreign to the modern faith in science and technology, paradigms alien to the modern belief in the univalence of truth, reason and order.”

Much more than meets the ear goes on in SWA.

SWA exploits genre music as Eco and Gibson exploit detective novels and sci-fi pulp fiction, by transforming the genre through appropriation of heavy-metal poses, SST riffs, loud, male-dominated, testosterone-laden, driving force music without belief in any of the false pretensions associated with it, but with the realization that a mutated heavy-metal guitar solo compliments “free bass”-style arrhythmic soloing. Reconfigured, the best elements of jazz, metal, rock, SST are spliced together in SWA, disjointed and nonlinear, creating a new paradigm and straining to escape the metanarrative prison.

SWA supports multiple interpretations. Listening to that band enables one to project both real and imagined memories onto it. [Roland Barthes, along with other French literary critics, has heralded the Death of the Author. Now meaning is supposed to come from an interaction between the text and the reader: the reader of literature constructs the text from his or her own unique perspective. Under postmodernist theory, everything can be read as a text, and all readings of each text are equally meaningful, if not valid. Meaning and truth are thus plural, changing, and subjective. To give privilege to one truth over another becomes an act of psychic terrorism.]


CUT TO: At the Palomino, mid-80s, Dukowski slams his bass into the floor to begin the second half of “Bad Acid,” Merrill shrieks from inside the women’s restroom, while Sylvia splays a solo faster than Jack the Ripper can remove a ripe ovary from a terrified yet tempted streetwalker. I sing along silently, rewriting the lyrics to every song that would appear on Winter, resignifying presented meanings to match my thoughts each time I heard the songs. See also, Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. “Since Frederick Jameson’s book on post-modernism, the term [post-modern] has referred to a pastiche, a quilt or patchwork, an eclectic juxtaposition of diverse stylistic elements without necessarily exhibiting any internal logic or intended structure…we explore whatever geometrical phenomena strike our fancy and fit into our limited technical repertoire.”

Other than citing Led Zeppelin as a originating form of pastiche, implying that the parodic elements are already present in the original and that no parody is necessary or valid, SWA, as pastiche, represents the evolution of rock into the postmodern sensibility: in short, SWA embodied simultaneously the larva, the progressive evolution, the de-evolution, the regressive deformity, the birth defects, the aborted fetal matter, the idiot savant, the naturally selected advanced gene, the genius, the spliced gene, and the Christlike god-made-flesh. Not merely meta-narrative: meta-evolution. Let me explain. On Black Flag’s My War, Dukowski’s song structure and lyrical content formed a critique of megalomania in its myriad forms. Leaving Ginn to play and Rollins to sing in the role of Hitler on he title track while departing the band was a bold, yet subtle, critique of the band’s excesses, conformity, adherence to formula, and explanation of his departure. Meanwhile, in Dukowski’s absence, Black Flag actually became what you describe SWA as. [Actually, I like the instrumental Flag albums, Process and Family Man, but they could easily fall prey to the same criticisms leveled at SWA.] SWA’s early released are marred by uneven content. Occasionally, a rough beast emerges from the primordial slime on Your Future If You Have One such as “Until You Bleed” or “Islands in the Freeway.” Most mutations are a mess, evolution in motion but failing. Sex Dr., while it spawned a few mutations and aborted efforts that would have been best left on the girl’s bathroom floor at the Prom, also gave birth to a few advancements in the species, such as “The Evil and the Good”, more ordeal than song; and “Sea & Sky”. Nothing, however, compares to the utter nihilism of XCIII’s monstrous set list of “Faker’s Blues”, “Optimist”, “Evolution”, “So Long”, “Succumb”. The whole album represents a pinnacle, an evolutionary leap into the future. Winter, despite the departure of Juncosa, in its raw unrecorded state had great songs, great lyrics, and amazing playing. The recording completely fails to do justice to the power of that album. Densely-layered, complex songs (which, when the lyrics are obscured by noise, lay down vocal patterns upon which alternate lyrical content rests peacefully–compose your own paranoia). The release-version was overproduced with vocals far too prominent and contained attempts at a hit song–clearly sounding different and thus separate from the rest of the album. Having heard these songs live for so long, I was, of course, disappointed with the release because, live, the songs sounded so great. [The post-Winter release Volume has but moments that ransack past glories.]

CUT TO: Once, while calling the phone company to complain about my bill, I was placed on hold for over an hour. One song played was “Chances Are.”

See, it worked.

What germinates spawns a multitude, spanning the frightening to the powerful to the powerless, of forms. A huge step in avoiding a hostile corporate takeover of the human mind would be to engineer a paradigm shift in LA’s alternative music scene, which in its small unheard way, SWA did.

CUT TO: At Bebop Records, a Merrill-less show, Dukowski announces “Monster” as a “…song about education, but when Merrill sings it, it sounds like a sexual come-on.” People laugh; it’s funny: every song Merrill sings sounds like that. But for this one, there’s a reason behind it. Duk rolls his eyes. Blank canvas, filled in slowly, with shards of sound, dollops of color, mutated into a fully realized apocalyptic composition, framed by ornate mahogany floral patterns with gargoyle carvings at each corner.


Dismiss Dukowski if you want (to be ignorant); however, he was at the top of his form in SWA as a songwriter, bass player, and performer. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t he leave Flag because the music was too confining and Ginn refused to have non-rhythmic bass “leads” compete with his guitar leads? Some of the best songs on My War are Dukowski compositions; SWA continued that legacy and allowed him the freedom to play leads on bass, to solo, to allow his playing to dominate the music. Duk’s playing transcended its context in SWA. In songs like “Faker’s Blues” or “Bad Acid” (and virtually all of XCIII and Winter), his playing amazes me: it’s intricate, varied, non-repetitious, and original, incorporating elements of free jazz, improvised soloing, and multipart songs that deny the rhythmic monotony of standard bass playing. Psychobiology rendered in musical notes. On the album Winter, in songs like “Monster,” “Mass Confusion,” and “Goddess,” he frequently solos through the vocal chorus! You can ignore all this BS here if you want to (since it’s mainly jokes/parody/pastiche or pretentious rock writer criticism SWA nonsense anyways), but Dukowski deserves recognition as a revolutionary bass player, not for his playing in Black Flag which was unremarkable, but for the style he developed and perfected after leaving Flag and playing in other configurations, which primarily was SWA and some impromptu jam sessions. His solos and song structures still blow me away today. No one played like him.

Sylvia Juncosa

And, for a short time, he was in a band with Juncosa, who isn’t well-recognized enough as a massive guitar player. Sylvia Juncosa deserves championing, not pity. As technologically adept as she was technically proficient, her playing in SWA fused noise, psychedelic, heavy metal, the “SST sound,” surf, and an unparalleled lusty, sensuality that balanced and complimented Merrill’s chemically amplified testosterone. The SWA release XCIII documented her playing well, never to be recaptured on vinyl, tape, or CD; in fact, no format accurately contained the sound and fury of her playing except live, eardrum-bursting performances in smelly, smoke-filled clubs: it was the most distorted vision of beauty I remember from the 80s. Juncosa played with the tyranny of the senses to the tyranny of reason, for no reason, and when the impulse to play, merely for the sake of playing, is followed, we cease to be governed by either sensuousness or rationality; technology is merely there, a force which signifies nothing, expresses nothing, but which was being made to express nothing beyond its own momentum. She herself was force. Like free association, her playing was not tuneless, but so irrationally tuneful that it disrupted normal synaptic discourse, breaking the logical connectives of neurotic discourse, and inscribing a new pattern to destabilize normal brain function only to almost simultaneously reinscribe itself into the neural network as insidiously as an obsession, as bluntly as a guillotine. The experience was like grabbing a downed powerline in the rain. To classify her guitar playing as merely heavy-metal is like comparing a close range shotgun blast to a bee sting.


The singer in a rock band is a joke, so why pretend IT is anything else? Sometimes striking poses that would appall Freddie Mercury, Merrill played the role of heavy-metal rock singer as the exaggerated, ridiculous, over-the-top way in which you describe, but did so deliberately, confusing the joke with the joker. I always imagined him to be an old, crusty taxidermy model of himself, dust-covered, stuffed, and mounted with dried, clear glue under two phony eyes bulging and perpetually on the verge of falling out. Fake, in other words. I’m against privileging paradigms, and whether or not Merrill realized it (see Rollins above), he parodied himself. Yes, ironically. But it had to be deliberate. The lyrics to “Optimist” show Merrill adopting one of many persona; other songs sound closer to his real voice and personality, but it’s a blurry line to define. The provocative live act–the Merrill puppet show–garnered a reaction, strongly negative, but with sufficient impact to deliver their message (obscured though it may have been).
“And whether fetishization is not an exercise capable of dissolving an illusory ego; homing in on, physically possessing, not the ruling ego, but affective reality, made up of a mingling of the subject’s body with several other affective bodies, which operates through a given organ, muscle, or joint.” –Helene Cixous, Les Marionnettes

On a purely emotional level, I spent many nights checking out SWA. They were my favorite live band, and the one that I have seen more often than any other band. My words, other people’s words, quoted or uncredited, still fail to do justice to SWA. Somehow, in some inarticulate way, going to the Anti-Club or Al’s Bar or The Shamrock, drinking, listening to SWA, watching Dukowski play bass in a way that NO one ever has or could, brings memories that (when they do resurface) are as relaxing and pleasant as going to the Anti-Club on a Sunday afternoon for an SST Barbecue, getting a hot dog from chef Chuck, and kicking back and listening to jam sessions that were never meant to be repeated but merely instant memories.

St. Vitus: now there’s a band worth revisiting.

–Darren Cifarelli

PIG STATE RECON wishes to thank the following folks:

– Flipside Magazine for all the B&W photos;
– Rolling Stone Magazine(!) for the color photo of Merrill;
Sylvia herself for her rockin’ photo;
this guy for the rockin’ Dukowski photo;
– Jay Hinman of AGONY SHORTHAND blog, whose initial, unflattering SWA post became the unsuspecting recipient of Darren’s SWA Defense Piece;
– Dave Lang of LEXICON DEVIL blog, whose post about the Program: Annihilator cassette apparently egged Jay to write about SWA in the first place;
– Tim Ellison at MUSIC CHAMBER blog, who kept SWA on my mind over the past few years with little reminders like this.

And of course, to Darren himself for listening to SWA when no one else bothered.


17 Responses to “SWA: Let’s Ball!”

  1. Jay May 21, 2007 at 3:09 am #

    Fantastic. When I was about to lose all of my comments on Agony Shorthand when the provider, “Squawkbox”, was going under, I took care to save all the SWA comments and those from a negative NAUTICAL ALMANAC post I did as well. But how did you get the infamous Cifarelli post?

  2. mrowster May 21, 2007 at 6:07 am #

    This piece was so great, I saved it to my harddrive back at some point too – with the intention of forwarding it to a couple of folks I know who find it difficult coughing up much love for SWA.
    But: I also contacted Darren this week – this post has his blessing!

  3. JB May 22, 2007 at 8:14 pm #

    Thanks for the re-up of Dr. Cifarelli’s graduate thesis. Man, that color photo of Merrill and b/w of Chuck with the scary paint are going to look SWEET on the new coffee mug I just digitally put them on down at the local craft store. I think you need one as well . . . .


  4. mrowster May 22, 2007 at 8:52 pm #


    What I need is that handprint tattoed on my face. “You gotta know yourself, and let all those jokers ride!”

  5. Merrill Ward August 27, 2007 at 5:28 am #


    Someone was paying attention. And to think, I always thought everyone missed it. Well, that’s what I get for thinkin’. So glad I’m over that now.

    Much love under will.


  6. Ed Gregor October 30, 2007 at 7:13 am #

    Hey. Great to read that. I’m sure I was the other guy in the crowd at a few of those shows. I even ended up playing guitar in SWA for a few months after Sylvia left, but never played any shows with those guys. Just alot of LOUD practice and good times with Merill, Chuck and Greg.

    To strive to be SWA, is very… un-SWA.

    Ed Gregor

  7. Chavez November 30, 2008 at 5:06 am #

    Wow, I just recall hearing about one of their vids in, of all places, RIP Magazine.

    You can’t find squat on SWA on the net (no doubt to their name being a nice abbrev for a prominent airline), and I finally chased down what appears to be their lone youtube clip. Me like, though I probably am not appreciating the postmodern irony so much as the tight, punchy riffs.

  8. mrowster December 2, 2008 at 9:16 pm #

    There was a video made for SWA’s “Arroyo” if I’m not mistaken – but nobody’s bothered to upload it to YouTube yet. A little help, anyone?

  9. steve January 16, 2009 at 4:32 am #

    Wow, flippin’ great. For shits and giggles, I recently digitized my SWA LP’s to mp3’s (so I can have ’em lo-rez and on the go) and I’ve been on a great SWA kick. I think I saw just about every show of theirs at the Anti-Club. Excellent memories, and an excellent trip…

  10. Dave February 3, 2009 at 8:17 pm #

    All I can say is, Amen Brother. SWA, like many/most of the SST bands, was innovative and entertaining. In the mid 80’s I worked as a DJ at KLA, the UCLA college radio station, and had the pleasure of interiewing Merril and Chuck one Saturday night circa ’86 or ’87. They were fun, funny, nice, and interesting guys. I saw them (and DC3 and Saint Vitus) play several shows around LA at that time and they expanded everyone’s horizons with their incredible jams. Great shows, great times.

  11. mikey March 26, 2009 at 4:38 am #

    I been listening to this band for years, there great. can anyone post or email me the lyrics for ‘ Succumb” thanx.

  12. Mike April 19, 2009 at 6:09 pm #

    I saw SWA live once or twice in the mid 80’s and thought they rocked. I never understood why they were regarded as “The worst band to record for SST” I have a copy of the Arroyo video, I’ll post it on youtube

  13. mrowster April 20, 2009 at 6:17 am #

    Mike: Would love to see that Arroyo vid again – do what you can to get it up on YouTube.

  14. low ballz October 11, 2009 at 10:22 pm #

    i’m here looking for a file of Swa’s “Winter” lp…

  15. Mario May 15, 2011 at 2:51 am #

    Thanks for the insightful article. It said so many things that I thought I may have only imagined, as I never met anyone who had seen SWA or liked them, and there’s very little written stuff. SWA forever!

  16. d fraser September 5, 2014 at 7:57 pm #

    Used to see SWA at all of the places mentioned here. They were awesome. Merrill’s little rant lead-ins to the opening tunes used to blow my mind. He seemed as high as I was. I saw Chuck break bass strings more than once, he used to bend so far. They had a show set on Merrill’s birthday at the MusicMachine. Merrill outbid me for the videotape that the club made of the show. I was bummed. But it was his birthday. He humped a cake on stage!


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