(Originally posted on my Agony Shorthand blog in March 2004)
ARE YOU SWA OR NOT SWA?
One of 2004’s “Top 5 most promising Australian newcomers” is blogmeister Dave Lang, who forced me to chortle out loud this week with his continuing reviews of his dust-collecting cassettes, most notably the SST “Program: Annihilator” compilation tapes of some 15-20 years ago. His gratuitous mention of SWA, universally regarded as one of the absolute, no-question-about-it Worst Bands of All Time, got me remembering my own 1988 encounter with this loathsome combo. I mean, I’ve seen some atrocious bands in my day – Ethyl Meatplow, Hole, The Gargoyles, Stone Temple Pilots, Doggy Style – but I’m pretty sure that SWA were the worst (all right, Ethyl Meaplow were the worst). Dave was dumbfounded after I emailed him my kudos for his piece: “I can’t believe you saw SWA!!!”.
Some background, all reconstructed from memory. By 1988, after three years of fruitless toil, SWA had been a huge scene joke for years. The band was one of several post-Black Flag, Los Angeles-based outfits for Flag co-founder and bassist Chuck Dukowski, all of whom were – when thought about at all – considered to be unarguably awful. But SWA took the cake. Tuneless, hookless, arduous and hideously overdone pseudo-metal with rotten vocals and a generally meatheaded persona was not a recipe for success in 1985-88, even with the Flag pedigree and the SST banner unfurled behind them. Countless fanzines mocked them. Steve Albini, in a piece listing the 50 Worst Things a Person Could Do (or something like that), had two SWA-related entries: “Listen to SWA” and “Be SWA”. Any association with the band could be deadly. SYLVIA JUNCOSA, having played guitar in SWA for a period of time, was instantly disowned by a large percentage of rock fans and had to resort to giving titles to her songs like “Lick My Pussy, Eddie Van Halen” in a vain effort to recover what little credibility she’d vainly squandered. A guy from my college radio station was hounded mercilessly for weeks and ceremoniously “kicked out of the scene” simply for the transgression of playing SWA on his show – once. Even Southwest Airlines were boycotted for years by a substantial contingent of underground rock tastemakers for the crime of having the offensive toll-free reservations number of 1-800-I-FLY-SWA.
Seeing them open for DAS DAMEN at LA’s Anti-Club in ’88 was the culmination of years of trembling anticipation – I mean, how bad could they really be? Oh my goodness yes, that bad. In front of 10 people in a dank, dark, dirty club with a 2-foot stage, Dukowski violently slapped his bass, puffed out his cheeks like a blowfish, and leapt around like he was headlining at Wembley. It was so ridiculously over-the-top and 100% uncalled-for that I’m willing to at least entertain the theory that SWA was actually a drawn-out, years-long joke from the Andy Kaufman school of humor (supporting evidence for this notion can be found on one of those Harvey Kubernick “spoken word” compilations, on which Dukowski gives a long rant asking people to choose if they’re “Swa” or “Not Swa”). But I doubt it. Lead vocalist “Merrill” writhed and winced and sweated through their bombastic barrage, and even transported his mic outside onto the patio to berate the poor patrons who just needed an escape from the band’s horrors. It was pretty amazing chutzpah, but the band must have figured, what did they have to lose? I am willing to state for the record that there was A.) not one person there to see SWA and B.) that of the 10 who watched, not one liked them, not even a little bit.
Yet the band soldiered on for one more album (of five total, including a compilation!) the next year, before vanishing in complete and utter disgrace. I had repressed them fairly successfully until Dave Lang brought them screaming back to life. One of the hallmarks of progress in therapy is the willingness to confront your innermost demons and slay them publicly, with a circle of close friends or relations you can trust. I’d like to think that I can share the horror of SWA with you, my friends, and in so doing can perhaps bring my rock therapy to a close. It all depends on how I sleep tonight, because I just may have woken something up that had wanted to stay buried for a long, long time.