Sunday, February 19, 2017

Small Town: Swann Street


Here’s a band that never really was: Three was an offshoot of two DC bands, Minor Threat (drummer Jeff Nelson) and members of Grey Matter, with early involvement from Dischord Records creator and DC musical founding father, Ian MacKaye. Mackaye and Nelson had just recorded a legendary (in my town) two song project called Egg Hunt, and were looking to form something new. Sadly, Three never got off the ground, save for one album, a brilliant rock n roll album, far afield from the discordant, angry nue-punk we expect from Dischord, called Dark Days Coming.

On that album, which I heard first on vinyl, which places it in its own special category of my musical memories, is a song called Swann Street. Swann Street is anthemic in the very best ways, slow burning through a solo acoustic guitar opening before winding up full-on with tidal wave drums, Townshed-esque power chords, and a chorus meant to sung stadium-sized loud.

Despite the refrain to “keep your ear to the ground”, which is radio-worthy and demands a sing-along, there’s an odd, somewhat out of place line, …”these berries smell like shit/I don’t know why,” which places this song firmly in DC territory. The song is named after the street in Dupont Circle, Swann Street, where singer Steve Niles lived. The berries are a reference to the Gingko trees that line the streets of DC, especially in my old neighborhood of Dupont. Famous for dropping a particularly stinky berry, everyone in DC knows the springtime nightmare of stepping on a gingko berry and then carrying that sticky, jellied mess into their home, grinding it in the carpet—getting it out shoe tread is worse than dealing with dog poo. The smell of ginkgo permeates the city in spring and never fails to make one wonder: who the hell planted these trees? They had to know…

According to, where I had to turn to get a lot of this info, Three imploded before Dark Days Coming was released, but Grey Matter went on to release a number of seminal Dischord albums, and in 2008, at the Black Cat’s 15 Anniversary show, they performed a superb rendition. Hearing the audience singing along reminded me of both what a great song this is, but also how insular, in the best way, the DC music scene was (is).  This is a secret classic, and when I meet someone who knows this song, knows how great it is, there is an instant bond, in the way the great songs can bind us together.

I’m not doing the song justice: I picked it because even now, at 45, the song turns me up inside like it did when I first heard it, back in 1990. Sometimes, when I try to put into words what songs mean, I feel like I’m somehow taking away from the neural-spark that a great song ignites inside that ineffable joy, a sharpening of the soul, a infinite initial reaction that, despite the years, will always repeat.  

Swann Street is a boundless, wound-up blast; a rock anthem worthy of bands far bigger in size than Three and it never fails to remind me of home. And, DC, despite being a seat of power and almost always the center of the world’s attention, is really just a small town. But, then, home should always feel that way. Here's a few versions of your new favorite song:

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