FEBRUARY 4, 2013
COURAGE TO TODAY’S aspiring rock star. In 1967, The Byrds could afford to be gently cynical about the tainted prospect of pop acclaim (“with your hair swung right / and your pants too tight / It’s gonna be alright,” they sang, mocking The Monkees, in “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star”). After all, they had already made their fortune by transforming “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the sodden, slightly subversive Bob Dylan folk song, into a jangly pop tune delivered with a crooked smile. By now that song has been covered countless times, “jangle-pop” is a well-worn (not to say worn-out) genre, and there’s 70-years worth of rock back-catalog to reckon with, along with scores of Retromaniacs who have repurposed every flicker of rock ’n’ roll flame. What’s a youngster with a USB Stratocaster to do?
Ask Ian Svenonius, a DIY rock musician who has had an influential 25 year career. His latest book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group: A How-To Guide, promises to reveal the inside scoop on forming a band, “empowering” the reader to “tour the world, and record […] so as to create a myth which might define a generation, inspire a movement […] You might even perform at the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival if you play your cards right.” Svenonius should know: he’s done all that, and yes, he’s also harmonizing with The Byrds here, updating their sardonic note about rock bands’ constricted prospects. A good group may “define a generation,” but the high-water mark today is playing a “curated” festival on an upscale New York pier, where the Velvet Underground references are always just so (ATP was rebranded “I’ll Be Your Mirror” when it came to New York last year; Svenonius’s reunited band The Make-Up played).
That glib invocation of “empowerment” via rock ’n’ roll is a signature of Svenonius’s style. He’s earned a cult following for a kind of satire that bristles with arch provocation. On one level, Supernatural Strategies is a spoof of the very idea of a rock ’n’ roll book. On another, though, it’s serious and slyly insightful about the music-industry machinations and socio-political forces that make it possible for a band to “define a generation.” (The Byrds were on to something.) It is also personal: nearly every sentence has an undercurrent of mordant lament about how the 1990s underground music scene Svenonius helped create has become fodder for a certain kind of fantasy about lost authenticity — just like so many countercultural styles that have come and gone before.
And though Svenonius plays it cool, the decline of underground music into a procession of increasingly empty signifiers must be wrenching to him. Over the past three decades, Svenonius has released dozens of albums as the front man of various bands that combine radical style, subversive politics, and clever jibes at the mainstream. His first, and most influential outfit, the Nation of Ulysses, released their debut LP 13-Point Program to Destroy America in 1991 on the Washington D.C.-based Dischord label; their 1992 follow-up, Plays Pretty for Baby, is a DIY classic, made in exile from the spotlight then illuminating “alternative” rock. The album is deliberately cultish: a mix of dissonant hardcore and raging, “sore-throated” lyrics meant to foment a revolution (Svenonius described it as more akin to a “zip-gun” than an album — as always, he was half-kidding, but only half). It conjures a “hickey underworld,” full of teen delinquents dancing to “the real anti-parent culture sound.” In one song, Svenonius screams, “Come into my quarantine”: a great metaphor for the cozy, claustrophobic subculture that the Nation of Ulysses and the bands they toured with, like riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill, thrived in, before the fever subsided in the mid-90s. Fittingly, Plays Pretty for Baby begins with a screech of feedback and some shouted poetry that beckons souls “who take pleasure in twilight […] who are lured by noise to every treacherous abyss.”
The Nation of Ulysses broke up soon after Plays Pretty for Baby’s release, but Svenonius has continued to work at the edge of that abyss ever since, fronting bands such as The Cupid Car Club, The Make-Up, The Scene Creamers, Weird War, and Chain & the Gang. (He’s also written one previous book, The Psychic Soviet, and hosted an Internet chat show called Soft Focus.) His live performances have always been indelible: At a 1991 Nation of Ulysses show in D.C. (which is on YouTube and has gotten many a Gen Xer — this author included — through a sleepy Sunday) he combed his hair between songs, struck double-jointed Egon Schiele-ish poses, played trumpet, and convulsively flailed on the stage floor, screaming lyrics like, “I’m not talkin’ about a Beatles’ song / written 100 years before I was born.” The live act took its toll: legend has it that while in the Nation of Ulysses Svenonius broke his arm, his leg, and incurred the kind of injuries more common at a rugby match than a rock show. Now, he dances more than flails, channeling that fierce energy into a hyperkinetic but controlled performance style that invokes James Brown as much as the Cramps’s Lux Interior.
Svenonius’s rhetoric can sound just as reckless as his stage show was. Since his Nation of Ulysses days, he’s continued to incite, to mock, and to take his anti-capitalist, anti-conformist views to their most extreme, yet weirdly logical, conclusion. For example, in his current band Chain & the Gang, Svenonius and his co-vocalist Katie Alice Greer rail against the glut of choice and the notion of progress in the digital marketplace, disavowing free will, free speech, and free press (“I don’t believe in free press / yeah, I think it’s a mess.”) And the feeling seems to be mutual: The press doesn’t believe in Svenonius either, which is strange, since music critics usually luxuriate in the kind of encyclopedic, layered, and provoking art he offers (stranger still, considering the 1990s nostalgia boom that has canonized so many of his peers). Svenonius has yet to receive his New Yorker profile, or really been paid much up-market attention at all (the exception being when he was named the “Sassiest Boy in America” by the teen magazine Sassy, an honor he filched in 1990). This is partially because he shuns such accolades, and partially because critics haven’t taken the time to make sure that his work is not just a put-on (it’s not), and perhaps most of all because Svenonius has no clear agenda other than insurrection. Academics have also ignored Svenonius’s trail through the trenches of marginalized music — though his theoretical touchstones practically invite explication by an industrious professor. His secret history of the 20th century (encompassing Motown and Marxism and the movie Over the Edge and yé-yé music and beyond) is perhaps both too secret and too sprawling. Svenonius certainly feels that, as a pack, critics are of the wrong temperament to judge his work. “‘Everyone is a critic’ is a common complaint,” he writes in Supernatural Strategies:
and one that certainly resonates in the modern era of self-publishing and electromagnetic commentary. And, indeed, there is fierce criticism from all quarters, which will bedevil your group if you let it. But public criticism is best ignored, as it’s arbitrary and often anonymous. Even when it bears a signature, the ideas are usually clueless and quite audacious. After all, who are these critics and who asked them anyway?
Supernatural Strategies begins as a collection of séances with dead rock stars such as Brian Jones, Buddy Holly, and Jimi Hendrix — an ingenious critique ad absurdum of moribund music culture. As they guide us through the inner workings of rock stardom in the opening pages, though, there’s a listless subtext of “who asked them anyway,”— since such critically acclaimed rock stars are now manqué museum pieces, as useless at overturning the status quo as a Ramones onesie. Svenonius acts as an enervated docent in the rock ’n’ roll hall of fame, more interested in torching the wax dummies around him than in getting them to speak. And Svenonius is not a very skilled ventriloquist, anyway, or, really, he’s not trying to be. (For example, this is from a surprisingly sober and analytical Jim Morrison: “Surf groups exploited actual surfers and objectified them as fetish dolls in order to give the lost and desperate post industrial teenyboppers of Southern California — and via them the entire teenage nation — an identity”). So, the séance joke soon sputters. Svenonius’s autodidactic prose style, his dazzling jump cuts, and his glib-serious tone sounds off-key when it’s (supposedly) filtered through a dead icon. Brian, Buddy, and Jimi all sound like Ian — and he’s the one we want to hear from, anyway. Svenonius evidently realized this about a quarter of the way into the book, when he abruptly changes tack, declaring that the apparition of Jimi Hendrix breezed into the room and said the ghosts would rather “write up an agreed upon instructional pamphlet, a kind of joint statement.”
The rest of the volume reads like the ranting revolutionary booklet it’s meant to be. (Supernatural Strategies, like The Psychic Soviet before it, is published as a pocket-sized, “Little Red Book”–style volume). Svenonius’s writing gifts have always been suited to a kind of agitprop that will hail a dance craze as readily as paraphrase Dick Hebdige, and his mojo starts working in short chapters with titles like “Sex,” “Drugs,” “Performance,” “Manufacturing Nostalgia,” and “Critics.” Making his way through these mainstays of rock culture, he quips, theorizes, and grandstands his way towards his favored “treacherous abyss,” enticed closer to the edge by the cacophony he’s always loved to make.
On nostalgia, for instance:
Nostalgia is thought of as cute and slightly pathetic — simple wistfulness. But it is actually the most intransigent, the most irrational, and therefore the most potent of all emotions […] Humanity’s fervent inclination is to maintain the way things are […] However, the dark system of capitalism insists on shocking, cataclysmic, even traumatic change on a constant basis. Indeed, nearly everyday another delightful candy wrapper with fond associations from one’s childhood is transformed by its manufacturer into something garish, cretinous, and embarrassing to look at.
Or, on the dangers of the rock lifestyle:
Our chief executives party in a way that would make the notoriously degenerate Dee Dee Ramone blush […] And yet Pig Pen and Jerry Garcia lie a-moldering in the grave while Clinton and Bush Sr. traipse through the world’s most exclusive brothels, beseeching their inhabitants, through PowerPoint presentations, to embrace “globalism.”
So much of the allure here is in watching Svenonius skirt absurdity. He’s always seemed delighted by the fact that the profound and the preposterous can sound awfully alike, a realization that puts him in line with an avant-garde tradition that stretches back before rock ’n’ roll crystallized this fact (there’s a through-line from Dada sound poet Hugo Ball’s “Karawane” to Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” to Weird War’s “Now I Can Unequivocally Say … Hey Hey”). Svenonius’s over-the-top style may occasionally distract from the substance of his message, but it is more artful than any kind of straightforward, self-righteous “position” — and certainly more fun than wan irony. He’s trying to steer the incendiary potential of punk rock — or, really, of rock ’n’ roll, pure and simple — into the treacherous 21st century, a feat that would indeed take supernatural cunning. It doesn’t always work, and probably isn’t meant to. As he writes near the end of the book, in what could be a summation of his career so far:
A rock ‘n’ roll group should not be respectable, nor should it be bourgeois or prestigious. If it’s to retain any power or any threat, its status must hover somewhere between that of the vagrant, the doomsday prophet, the street urchin, and the prostitute.
Svenonius has the spirit of a long-gone punk past, but his book has more to tell us about rock’s here-and-now than about its hereafter. Neither bourgeois nor prestigious, Supernatural Strategies may be the rare book by a rock musician to retain any power or threat. And the book sticks with you: Svenonius has made good on a prescient promise he sang on Plays Pretty for Baby: “All the dead ghosts / of rock ‘n’ roll / are gonna follow you / wherever you go.”