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Prophet of Rock

Ian Svenonius’ new book offers offbeat guide to rock ‘n’ roll life

Photo: Eva Moolchan, License: N/A

Eva Moolchan


If “write what you know” is one of authorship’s prime dictates, then Ian F. Svenonius seems uniquely qualified to author a book entitled Super-Natural Strategies for Making a Rock and Roll Group (Akashic Books). Since 1988 the Washington, D.C.-based musician, DJ, and writer has fronted a succession of iconoclastic rock bands, from the brash punk of Nation of Ulysses to the Make-Up’s soul-saturated “gospel yeh-yeh” to the Modern Lovers-esque revivalism of Chain and the Gang. Typically, these projects come with manifestos, uniforms, catchphrases, and ideologies in tow, and half the fun lies in how expertly the maestro and his charges flaunt those aspects of their iconography.

Yet, for all the pleasures his variable songwriting affords, Svenonius’ contrarian, anti-establishment rhetoric is his greatest gift. The 2006 The Psychic Soviet (Drag City), a collection of essays stylistically modeled on Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, held forth on everything from corporatist entrapment to political conspiracies to Cold War bull-hockey. Strategies plays to these same strengths by allowing him to run roughshod riot over hallowed ground he’s already trod—and sometimes paved—more than a few times.

The premise here is that Strategies wasn’t so much written by Svenonius as midwifed by an “editorial we” from the emanations of dead and near-dead celebrities. Svenonius purports that the first half of the book is verbatim transcriptions from long-deceased rock stars such as Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Jim Morrison, and the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, all hilariously free of any distinctive linguistic style or tics and delivered in the didactic, crackpot college-lecturer tone Soviet reveled in. This section is almost unrelentingly dry—a rock version of Might magazine’s “Ask the Revisionist History Guy” column—though there are some gems lurking within. Svenonius’ “Brian Jones” suggests, not entirely without reason, that the rock ’n’ roll group is a death cult because “male rock ’n’ roll fans have long felt overlooked when adoring their male idols, who often prefer to talk to girls.” Motown songstress Mary Wells passes on her wisdom “by spelling out letters in cooked spaghetti on the wall.” And Paul McCartney breaks down the continuing thrall of U.S. audiences to U.K. imports like himself because, despite being alive, “he does spend a lot of time in the spirit world while meditating or tending his garden in Scotland.”

The second, more freewheeling portion of the book is presented as a sort of concentration of dead, famous musicians’ ideas on what’s both essential and urgent in terms of creating, nurturing, and excelling in the rock-music world. Some of these morsels are expertly arch. “The first step. . . to getting started with one’s group is to perform in an unready state or to release an awful recording with a hideous cover,” the spirits muse. “Anything at all, just to create a humiliating object or event, which must be transcended so as to be obliterated from the public consciousness.” But they insist that shocking the world is not enough.

Even the minutiae associated with the first-ever band photograph must be micromanaged: “It must explain the group and encourage prospective acolytes even when shrunken down to thumbnail size and placed in a tiny corner of a weekly newspaper.” Copulating frequently and vigorously? Verboten: “Good performers must abstain entirely from the sex act if they are to maintain their ‘chi’ energy onstage and in the recording studio.”

There are weak moments here—a sociological comparison of touring van models is only mildly diverting—but more often than not this narrative stumbles into weirdly compelling gulches you won’t see coming.

A digression comparing audio formats and drugs could have easily ended up as one of those faux-philosophical, late-night exchanges between smashed 20-somethings but unexpectedly becomes something more profound: The 45-inch record simulates crack-cocaine and double LPs mimic heroin, the spirits contend, while “CDs and iPods are from the pharmaceutical era of mandatory drug use. They swirl, swish, and splatter in the periphery, creating an atmosphere but never demanding or requiring focused attention.”

Strategies snaps into brilliant focus like this several times, not least when it analyzes exchanges from well-known rockumentaries to ask whether a lack of interband communication is vital or poisonous to group longevity. The final reckoning (however specious)? The Beatles split up because they tried too hard to work through their differences directly; the Rolling Stones kept going because they communicated via “books and media” or their producers.

The pointedness of Strategies’ jabs at the rock-crit establishment feel more personal than satirical, and there are scattered moments—when discussing post-band breakup interactions or exploring the narcissistic mysticism of leading a band—where it’s possible to detect some real feeling in the writing. Between the lines, though, Svenonius enthusiastically reiterates what every music fan has eventually figured out: a) there’s no magic elixir, deal with the devil, or talisman that allows anyone to achieve definitive rock stardom, and b) taking music too seriously is utter folly.

Svenonius is best when his tongue is in his cheek.“Since the stage is a controlled environment, with specific assignments for each group member, it’s quite simple to rehearse what happens up there,” his spirits reason in a chapter titled “Practice and Rehearsal.” “One can time the events with a fair amount of precision, as is evident with the stadium groups who have choreographed explosions or the simulated lynching of dwarfs.”

Ian Svenonius will read at Floristree on Feb. 2 at 7 P.M.

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