America’s favorite sassy indie rock R&B revolutionary has returned with his second piece of writing, this one a manifesto masquerading as a how-to guide. In reality, there is very little how-to in Ian Svenonius’s Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group and much more “preaching stentorian from the mount,” as Henry Rollins would say. In other words, Svenonius has a lot of opinions about rock‘n’roll and he wants to share them with you. And it makes sense when one considers how for approximately twenty-five years the man has been rocking in bands including Nation Of Ulysses, The Make-Up, Weird War, and his current group, Chain & The Gang.
The premise of the first part of the book is that Svenonius and friends held a séance in which they called upon the spirit of Brian Jones to ask “him about the secret to a group’s longevity and legacy.” After that encounter, other dead musicians including Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Jimi Hendrix were consulted. These musicians—as well as a few others—give a history of rock‘n’roll, where it comes from, and how street gangs were forerunners to rock‘n’roll groups. It all comes off as both academic and absurd, as I have a hard time picturing Chuck Berry (or his spirit) ever saying such things as, “The resounding victory of the USSR over Germany at Kursk, Stalingrad, and Berlin seemed to reinforce Soviet claims of inevitable proletarian victory in a titanic, prophesied class struggle against imperialistic capitalism.” That being said, the first half of the book seems like a wash, although it might make for an interesting academic paper if it was reformatted.
The second—and larger—part of the book is the actual supernatural strategies portion. Here, Svenonius breaks down the different aspects that rock‘n’roll acts will have to address, starting with the very basic ideas, such as determining goals and more typical rock issues like sex and drugs. At the foundation, Svenonius (or the collective spirits, as it is evidently them disseminating their collective knowledge in one voice through this portion of the book) asks what the desire is for a group to form. He lays out four options: to be famous, sexually popular, to write some good songs in the style of another particular group, or to advance a particular ideological system. Given his past political stances, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the last answer is the correct one. Evidently “having fun” isn’t an option. Thus, if the first half’s academic analysis of rock‘n’roll’s history didn’t convince the reader of the book’s viewpoint, then this probably will. Svenonius is key on having rock‘n’roll mean something, and in his case it seems it is some of the same anti-capitalist, Marxist ideas that he has been utilizing throughout his career. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with doing so, but it’s only fair to know where the author is coming from.
Amongst some of the gems that Svenonius shares are:
—Your band name “has to appear in a dream or revelation.”
—Your group isn’t “really about music—it’s a model or an ideal.”
—Like a revolutionary cause, your life must be lived entirely for the group.
—Rock‘n’roll is “a replacement for erotic conquest” and the audience should be the only recipient of the musician’s love.
—“Not communicating is what keeps a band together.” (See Slayer and the Ramones.)
Over the years that I have observed music, it’s fair to say that much of Svenonius’s insights are spot on. (Although I did disagree with his idea that the audience desires for a group to play the same songs again and again because they want to be a brainless machine. Not all of us are at that point. I enjoy it when a band plays a new song at a show.) His comments on the importance of the rock‘n’roll group being the entire commitment of the individuals in order to succeed should be well heeded by anyone wishing to keep their band focused on its cause. And according to Svenonius, what should be the status of a rock‘n’roll group? Not to be respected. In fact, “its status must hover somewhere between that of the vagrant, the doomsday prophet, the street urchin, and the prostitute.”
While I did find a good chunk of what Svenonius wrote to be agreeable, it ran into a few problems that kept me from entirely enjoying Supernatural Strategies. The first issue was the notion of the séance as being a way to channel this information. It seemed silly and unnecessary—Svenonius’s information and analysis is good enough on its own. As mentioned before, it also made the first part of the book somewhat of a wash. The second issue was in Svenonius’s information and analysis. It is “preaching stentorian from the mount” to a degree, and is overkill. Why does there need to be a mention to the Imperial Century of the British Empire or the Industrial Revolution in such a book? It verges on intellectual masturbation. That’s not to say that there isn’t some credence to Svenonius’s work, but it frequently comes off as a bit much.
In fact, the mix of the silliness of the séance notion with the intellectualism of the material makes one wonder, “Is this serious? Does Svenonius actually believe this stuff?” When reading Al Burian, for example, while he can be long-winded, he’s also very lowbrow, making his references to Black Sabbath seem relevant when he is seeking to prove a point about something related to rocking. Svenonius, on the other hand, is long-winded and intellectual for no discernible reason. One can’t help but ask themselves, “Is this a manifesto that is to be believed and followed? Or is it meant for some other purpose? A good laugh? A discussion starter?”
It’s hard to endorse this book for what it is. Revisions to the essays could take it in two possible directions: academic research in the field of pop culture, or a genuine how-to guide for bands, perhaps as part of a column or as articles in a magazine. As it stands, it’s just a manifesto (I think?) and not one I can respect as being entirely serious. –Kurt Morris (Akashic Books, PO Box 1456, NY, NY10009)