We were floating somewhere in the Florida Straits, and Ian Svenonius had a message for the kids.
“Muddy Waters once said, ‘The blues had a baby and they called it rock ’n’ roll.’ But he never explained the circumstances of the blessed event,” Svenonius declaimed to a room of garage rockers and creative-class castaways, who had gathered on a Carnival vessel in February 2011 for the inaugural Bruise Cruise festival. He was reciting an apocryphal communiqué, audible only when a certain recording by the Bolshoi Theatre Choir and Model First Orchestra of the USSR Defense Ministry was played backward. “Who was the father for example? This detail, the paternity, has been left deliberately vague, with the listener left to wonder, ‘Why?’ Are we to assume it was a virgin birth? Knowing the blues’ boasts of promiscuity, this seems highly unlikely.”
Back on land a few months later, Svenonius’ band Felt Letters was playing a rare set at Comet Ping Pong. He bridged the songs not with banter but with a séance: He summoned hooded figures from backstage one by one to recite the otherworldly advice of departed rock icons.
You might have assumed then that Svenonius—perhaps the most natural showman to emerge from D.C. punk’s second coming, whose idiom-exploding, radical politics–tinged C.V. includes bands like Nation of Ulysses, The Make-Up, Weird War, and now Chain & the Gang—had entered a didactic phase of his career.
But Svenonius has been interrogating and unpacking the meaning of rock ’n’ roll for as long as he’s been making it: in the essay collection The Psychic Soviet, on his Vice magazine interview show Soft Focus, and in songs stretching from Nation of Ulysses’ “The Sound of Young America” to Felt Letters’ “600,000 Bands.”
In his newest volume, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group (Akashic Books), Svenonius again mounts a séance—communing with famous rock spirits including Brian Jones, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, and Paul McCartney (whom Svenonius notes is not dead, but does spend a lot of time on the astral plane). Over the course of the book, these countercultural specters provide a how-to guide to forming, performing in, and surviving a rock ’n’ roll band. It is, as the press materials promise, “a warning device, a philosophical text, an exercise in terror, an aerobics lessons, and a coloring book.”
Aided by Svenonius’ spiritual medium, Washington City Paper was able to smuggle three of the book’s 27 tracts out of the underworld. We present them to you now. —Jonathan L. Fischer
To determine a group’s identity, one must first determine what the group is trying to achieve.
Is it the desire to be a) “famous,” or perhaps b) sexually popular? Is it c) to write some good songs in the style of another particular group? Or perhaps is it d) to advance a particular ideological system?
If the intention is a), then we urge you to find another avenue. Fame in a group is fleeting and even when it is attained—which is fairly uncommon—it is subject to the vagaries and whims of an ignoramus public. The group member or singing star is a clown, occasional comic relief for his or her listener, but more often entirely ignored or the subject of ridicule. The fame begotten is so momentary as to be almost like a hallucination, and there is typically little money associated with it. There are much more solid ways to find notoriety, the most reliable being a political career.
Politics don’t require talent, intelligence, or good looks. In the beginning, you won’t even need to own a suit. Just announce some “provocative” (creationist, bigoted, or otherwise reactionary) vitriol into a microphone, and you’ll attract financial backers who will arrange television appearances, fundraising events, and bespoke finery. Your notoriety will be more long-lasting and more pervasive than any fame you could achieve in music. Truly, someone like Donald Rumsfeld, a mediocre government functionary with no discernible talent, intelligence, or charm, is a greater international celebrity than rocker Mick Jagger, who has reached the apex of his craft. Rumsfeld, despite being a has-been, is known in every corner of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa for his insanity and arrogance, while Jagger is admired by a mere couple hundred million music enthusiasts, huddled mostly in the first world.
If b), to be an amorist, is your goal, give up the group as a means to carnal buccaneering. The best thing for you is to pursue a job in advertising, medicine, or the field of “law.” These professions are celebrated by televised propaganda (in programs such as Law & Order, Grey’s Anatomy, and Mad Men), and will provide you with the financial incentives—in the form of real estate, luxury cotton sheets, and perceived stability—required to seduce your prey in the capitalist society.
If your goal is c), to write songs in the manner of another group, this might not be necessary. The group that seems to beg homage or emulation may have disintegrated, but their legacy is probably with us, either on cassette or record—or in video form.
If your ambition is d), some kind of social, aesthetic, or vaguely political goal, however, the group is the ideal medium for your message. It is a covert organizational front through which you may effect real transformation of culture.
But know this: The change you will effect using a group is not unlike a magic spell. Whatever your intention, your conjuring will invoke something deformed and accidental. It will unleash uncontrollable forces or it will snowball slowly, insidiously, into something monstrous that will torment you for eternity. But such inevitabilities are not your concern at the moment.
Right now your concern is how to mesmerize, seduce, and entrap a congregation or “audience” into declaring their status as devotees or “fans.” After all, the group nowadays is not unlike a religious cult or a faction of a political group. It is forever evangelizing, looking for acolytes.
In the past, the musician was a pianist who sat in the corner of a pub, or a lutist or sitarist on the street or at a dance. They attempted to bring about a reaction in their listeners, but didn’t expect to be singled out for particular praise beyond the aural triumph of an especially good night. They would certainly not expect fealty from their listeners. In fact, such an expectation would have been thought of as either misguided, insane, or blasphemous. But nonetheless, this is what the modern group, even the most inconsequential one, demands.
The modern group wants a following, big numbers on Nielsen SoundScan, a faithful mass who cite the group on the profiles posted on social networking sites, and celebrities in documentaries giving testimonials as to the group’s life-changing effect on them. They demand attendance at their concerts, T-shirt ownership, and the fetish-worship of original pressings of their records. They see rock ’n’ roll as a zero-sum game, whereby someone enjoying another group’s music or performance detracts from loyalty to their own group. They affect the myopic jealousy of an insecure lover, despite the realities of a shrinking rock ’n’ roll fan base combined with a simultaneous population explosion of rock ’n’ roll groups, which already number in the hundreds of thousands.
Why does the group demand such loyalty? Because the modern group is not only about music. Indeed, it has little to do with music. The modern group is the descendent of the street gang and it has inherited many of those organizations’ conceits. However, it is a performing entity with a commercial production component and its outlook has evolved into one that is broader than its violent, parochial forebears.
In a certain sense the rock groups replaced the modernist art movements that transformed society in the early 20th century (Dada, futurism, surrealism, and so on) and which were similarly divorced from the medium they were supposedly practitioners of—visual art—to the point that, by rejecting hundreds of years of developed technique and heaping scorn on the academy, they wrecked art itself, eventually leaving its heaping carcass to be transformed into the peculiar hybrid of academic essay, investment asset, and in-joke that it is today.
The Dadaists, surrealists, constructivists, and their ilk, if they’d had a peephole into the future, might have been horrified to see the art world they had engendered for future generations. Or perhaps they would have been delighted by the spectacle, by the realization that their apocalyptic visions were actually half-measures—that they couldn’t have even imagined the cynicism they unknowingly initiated. Either way, it’s immaterial. The point is that the “-ists” of the first half of the 20th century were struggling for more than merely aesthetics; they were struggling over ideology. They were struggling for the very soul of the world.
Their ideologies were explicit. The Blaue Reiter group, the constructivists, the suprematists, the fauvists, the cubists, the futurists, and the cubo-Futurists were articulate, outspoken, and didactic. Their manifestos were read aloud before crowds and proliferated as broadsheets, which were discussed, dissected, and violently contested. Their programs were declared as unabashedly as those of contemporarily popular political theorists like Gramsci, Sorel, and Marx.
Now, the modern rock ’n’ roll group is as disconnected from what was once music as their Dada forebears were from what had been art. But they don’t share the self-awareness of their modernist art-world predecessors. The rock ’n’ roll group, being a creation of capitalism, has been forbidden any explicit ideology beyond an institutionalized nihilism or a vague contrariness, and thus it lives in a fog, semiconscious of what it is attempting, oblivious to the great struggle of which it is a part. The groups shuffle about like would-be Incroyables and Merveilleuses, partly ashamed of their endeavor, partly smug, with an inherited and wholly misplaced air of elitism.
They despise the squares they endure each day. But why? What is it about rock ’n’ roll—which seems to have failed utterly in its promise to deliver humanity from bourgeois hypocrisy and tedium—that affords them this conceit?
No one knows anymore. And yet they intuitively sense its larger meaning, its vast potential. Even the most illogical and incurious understand that rock ’n’ roll is altogether different from music. They know that rock ’n’ roll is tribal, the group being a commercial version of the neighborhood street clique with the same self-aggrandizing, illusory worldview and paranoiac obsessions. They recognize that the group is familial, a radical restructuring of the family unit from the nuclear model to something more akin to a hunter-gatherer tribe or a Stalin-era collectivist farm. And they know that it’s religious, with naked parallels to the messianic cults whose utopian freak scenes typified New World colonizing.
So, whether a social club with thousands of auxiliary members, a religion vying for the millions disaffected by other faiths, or a radical political faction exclusive of the official two-party cartel, one must decide: a) what sort of people one is attempting to appeal to, and b) what one is trying to lead them toward.
PRACTICE AND REHEARSAL
Practice is important. However, one must remember that practicing your instrument and songs is only one part of the struggle that you are commencing.
The reason that the NVA and the Vietcong were able to prevail over the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War was because of their ideological training. Political education lasted up to four hours every day for the VC guerilla. Target practice and drills were only a fraction of that. The VC guerilla prevailed over his American counterpart because his sense of what he was fighting for was lucid and clear, while his opponent—though he possessed better weaponry and could invoke massive firepower—was politically confused.
During the Napoleonic Wars, when military theorist Carl von Clausewitz was serving as an attaché for the Prussian Army, he determined that the strength of France’s revolutionary forces was indomitable precisely because they were fighting for a cause. The opposing forces were comprised of mercenaries and conscript dupes, and lacked the cohesion of an ideology.
Therefore, if your group is fervently ideological, aware of the implications of its aesthetic presentation, and committed to its cause, it will be almost unbeatable. This kind of faith is hard to muster in our blasé, cynical, intellectually paralyzed, narcissistic, pornoholic, and postideological world, but can still be achieved through self-hypnosis or a sort of method acting.
Practice isn’t only something for the practice space. One could argue that what is now called “practice” is actually “rehearsal.” Practice is what happens when one is alone and getting one’s chops together. Chops could be practicing guitar or anything consistent with preparing for playing or performing. It could be meditation, reading a book, showering, or watching a film.
For the group member, there is no “free time.” The band identity is constant. One is constantly “in” the group one is “in” unless they are “out,” as in kicked out or left out. Therefore, each waking and sleeping hour one must embody the ideals of the group. If tennis shoes aren’t consistent with the identity of the group, one mustn’t wear tennis shoes, even if one is at home alone or on vacation. The entirety of one’s existence must represent the group, until the group is no more.
Why this unremitting role-playing? To ensure that the group, when it makes a “performance,” feels like a cohesive entity and not just a contrived assortment of dressed-up goofs. Why can’t this role be just for stage? Because the rock ’n’ roll band is not Hamlet. Its performance doesn’t end when it alights from stage and it doesn’t begin when it steps up onto it. It is—always. Laurence Olivier was allowed to set his wig and makeup aside when he left the Old Vic at night. He slept in his bed as himself. Chaplin spoke, Brando shed his leathers, and Mae West could rest her burlesque zingers. If one looks at the tabloids in the supermarket, one is treated to views of glamorous screen stars walking their Labradors in khakis and ball caps, or standing beside their SUV. They make no attempt to convince their public that they aren’t the ordinary, lame squares they actually are. But the rock ’n’ roller hasn’t got this luxury. They must inhabit the myth until the myth is real. They live it eternally. Many, like Sid Vicious or Jim Morrison, die for it.
The director Joseph Losey, when filming a period piece such as The Go-Between starring Julie Christie or King & Country with Dirk Bogarde, insisted his actors wear their costumery off the set at all times, even when eating fast food or performing ordinary tasks. This was obviously risky—the clothes might tear or be stained—but it was necessary nonetheless, as it meant his players wouldn’t be so visibly delighted with their outfits while onscreen. In his view, it ensured that the clothes didn’t become the star of the story. Your approach must be similar.
Why all this fuss? Because the group is not really about music—it’s a model or an ideal. All life is practice when one is “in” a group. As much as one is practicing while offstage for being onstage, the inverse is also true—even more so. Since the stage is a controlled environment, with specific assignments for each group member, it’s quite simple to rehearse what happens up there. 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 lynchings of dwarfs. Offstage is where the ad-libbing, banter, elocution, and improvisational “jamming” techniques are going to be put to the test.
One’s time onstage is a practice session for one’s time offstage. One must learn to be as directly indirect, unselfconsciously self-aware, poetic, loose, dynamic, and charming offstage as one is when one is “treading the boards.” One must delight, captivate, entrance, and seduce whether one is in the coffee shop, the sitting room, or the office cubicle.
What is a song? A song is a kind of joke or story one tells in a concise manner, with drama, wit, strategic reiteration of a theme (the chorus), and pathos. If one can converse with the same brevity and hypnotic mind control as one finds in a “hit” song, one will be all right. If one can move with the heroic gestures and strutting pomposity of stage performance, things are going to work out in all areas of life.
And what is one’s life lived for when one is in a group? It is for the group. Absolutely and unconditionally, like the samurai’s was for his feudal master. The practice time that one has onstage is short; typically a group which isn’t headlining won’t be allowed to “perform” for more than 30 or 35 minutes. One must learn to use one’s time efficiently.
The time onstage is “practice” for life and not “rehearsal.” The difference is that the latter is a literal run-through of events as they are proposed to occur, whereas “practice” is general education such as occurs in the dojo, the classic “university,” or charm school.
The group will be expected to perform its music “live” in concert for an audience. Though adults scoff at the affection which infants and animals have for repetition (children with their Teletubbies, for example, or dogs with their stick rituals), they expect the performer in a rock group to repeat things over and over again. The performer’s body of work is expected to be cohesive and “of a thread,” they are supposed to play their hit songs dutifully at each concert and look the same their entire life (eternally youthful). Each day on tour is a repeat of the previous day, each performance is expected to be essentially the same, and songs are expected to be verse and chorus repeated again and again. The solo, or “free” part of a song, which apparently defies the structure of a tune, is actually just a slight variation of the chords and notes that comprise the song. The solo is a tease of chaos, a moment of anxiety before order is restored with the return of the comforting chorus, galloping over the hill like the proverbial cavalry.
Performers who are liked and respected are ones who have “signature” styles and moves; repetition again.
What is at the root of this desire on the part of the audience for the group or performer to repeat the same thing again and again, like some brainless machine? Answer: the desire to be a brainless machine.
Before the machines took control, people did “work.” Lots of manual labor, which took lots of time. The time used for working was the time when people ordered their thoughts. Work was repetitive and therefore meditative. People were like machines then. They honed their limbs to work the fields, wash the clothes, weave the baskets, cook the food, and bake the clay. But they were imperfect machines. They got distracted and socialized with one another or napped on the job. Since nobody knew any other way, however, it was fine—until the machines came, with the “Industrial Revolution.”
At first this was greeted as a novel and silly development. The machines were ungainly, inefficient, brainless, and would often break down. People laughed at them. But as time went on, improvements were made and they were recognized to be effective—even revolutionarily so. They could do the work of a dozen or more laborers. The bosses started using them not to make the worker’s lot easier, but as the worker’s replacement. The machines started displacing the workforce, shattering the family unit and traditional, even ancient ways of life. Knowledge passed down for generations was suddenly obsolete. Farms were abandoned. Cities filled up with hayseeds looking for factory jobs. People were tramping, prostituting, being mashed up by the machines. Society was in its twilight. All the rules, honed over hundreds of years, were suddenly kaput. Time was now the central concern. Increments of time. Efficiency. And numbers. No one looked at the stars anymore. People stopped living with the beasts. Humanity saw itself being overtaken by machines. Even if the ruling class recognized that they had unleashed a demonic force, they were making too much money to care. They had created for themselves a new, uncontrollable, amoral supermachine with its own demented logic: capitalism. It was a juggernaut that wrought a new and incomprehensible epoch, a Götterdämmerung. The time of plants and animals was being eclipsed by that of oil, cogs, and gears.
Increasingly, humans were living according to the dictates of the machines and what made sense for the machines. Resentment of the machines’ power grew. John Henry was a popular legend of a man-martyr who challenged and beat the machine, but died doing so. Metropolis by Fritz Lang features a “machine-man” robot who infiltrates and subverts workers’ movements. Séances, table rapping, and a craze for spiritualism were an outgrowth of the havoc and fear wreaked by industrialism, as people sought refuge in the mystical from the bewildering changes they endured. So were Fascist movements, which lauded the lost values of the arcane, agrarian world. Sci-fi books such as The Time Machine prophesied the total degeneration of industrialized mankind. Chess masters fought against Deep Blue—a chess-master computer. It was all for naught. Humanity gave up, bested by the army of androids and hard drives that now monitors our every thought and movement. But during the time of transition, before the machines took over completely, man worked with machine, side by side in the factories and steelyards.
And just as different human cultures pick up habits from one another when sharing an environment, so it was with man and the machines.
What the humans learned from their machine coworkers was the seduction of “existential repetition.” The comfort found in the familiarity of an action combined with the machine’s simple resolve to just do what it did, free of pretense or the need to explain itself. In the face of the machine, people felt embarrassed about their old-timey penchant for ideas like resolution, narrative, plot, and morality. The cyclical philosophies of the Hindus, the Mayans, the Egyptians, and the Norse were reconsidered by previously linear Westerners. Nietzsche wrote about the “eternal recurrence of the same.” Mankind swore to never again paint a picture of a thing, or create a play with a moral or a point. It just didn’t make sense anymore.
Once the machines had taken over, humans were off the hook. They no longer needed to do laundry, thresh wheat, or stamp dies. They were saddled with the oppressive “leisure time” paradox. Not coincidentally, they—for the most part—abandoned their former hobbies such as painting, poetry, and writing, and focused on creating something as brainless, self-satisfied, and repetitive as their masters. First they tried modernism; then abstraction, collage, avant-noise, and existentialism. Eventually these experiments were retired with the discovery of the most devolved mode of expression ever. It was called The Group.
As opposed to writing, which typically required a narrative plot with a conclusion, or a painting, which was static, humans decided to imitate their overlords and just be content with “doing.” Success, for the group, was simply the completed performance of the same thing over and over. There was no conclusion, as in a play, and there was no cerebral element, as in poetry. It was enough for the group to be seen in fighting trim, its parts oiled and chugging along. Like a reliable appliance, all that mattered was that it “worked.” A great performance was one that was “tight.” Some groups tried to use their music to spout opinions or political statements, particularly during the folk revival era (1948–1964), but this kind of coherence and intellectual engagement, this attempt to inject humanism and meaning into the meaningless was eventually abandoned for the internal logic of the absolutely nonsensical.
One intention for every serious group was to create records. A record was a single performance captured forever and designed for endless repeated playings. This kind of soulless ability to reproduce an exact action again and again made the group a beautiful thing in the mechanized age. If the group was a machine, the group’s record was like its “spare parts,” an army of clones waiting in the warehouse for the day when the group had to be retired for whatever reason, designed to do its job precisely the same, or even better.
Therefore, when a group-machine breaks down or “breaks up,” it’s not mourned for what it did—that’s with us forever via the records—but that it won’t be able to produce any more moments which closely resemble the things it did before.
Like the machine, the group produced work (in the form of songs, performances, or recordings, with the latter actually being built for use by machines). While the machines had made products for humans, such as the sewing machine, the whoopie cushion, or the Q-tip, the group made records or cassette tapes which could only be translated to a human via another automaton. Therefore, the group consisted of humans making themselves into machines, which could only communicate via other machines.
Rock ’n’ roll groups could be seen as “trading places” with the gadgets, which had started their existence as simple workhorses for humans and were now savoring their vengeance.
The group, in a sense, is a surrender, a concession to the machine, a karmic payback to the appliances which gave us our prosperity and relative ease of existence. As such, the human in the group must repeat his or her nightly ritual in a penitent “endless recurrence of the same.”
Ian F. Svenonius’ Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group is available from Akashic Books on Jan. 1, 2013. A launch party is planned for Jan. 5, 6 p.m., at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.