1. Never Trade Your Job for a Book Deal
Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan has always been a strong supporter of his former police chief, Charles A. Moose.
“I always expected he would be police chief again somewhere within a year,” he told the Washington Post 13 months after the sniper saga that thrust the chief into the national spotlight.
But Duncan should have peered a bit more skeptically into his crystal ball. Though he relayed that vote of confidence as Moose was a finalist for a chief’s job in Minneapolis, it turned out the prognostication was premature: Moose didn’t get that job. He lost the spot to a candidate from Dayton, Ohio.
Nor did he take jobs in Greensboro, N.C., or Sacramento, Calif., that, as he told the Baltimore Sun that year, he’d been approached about through a headhunter. Since then, Moose’s name hasn’t been mentioned for any major openings. He’s a chief without a force.
Not that Moose, now 51, is complaining. His wife, Sandy Moose, reports that the couple have been enjoying post-sniper life at their new home on Oahu, Hawaii. (The former chief is unavailable for comment—an Air Force major, he’s on active duty with the National Guard in San Antonio through the summer.)
The Mooses have sold their properties in the contiguous 48 and now live in a new development, Ocean Pointe, in Ewa Beach. Recently, the chief bought a new Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail. “He goes up to North Shore and buys us corn for dinner,” Sandy Moose says.
Charles Moose’s transition from policing MoCo to Hawaii Five-O began with a single tear.
When Moose took the podium on the morning of Oct. 7, 2002, six D.C.-area citizens had already been killed by the elusive gunman. And just an hour before, the shooter had critically wounded an 13-year-old boy at a Bowie, Md., middle school, seemingly taunting the terse, thin-lipped top cop.
A few minutes into his press briefing, as he spoke about the latest victim, Moose lost it: “Our children don’t deserve this. So parents, please, do your job tonight. Engage your children. Be there for them. We’re going to need it.” A tear could be seen running down his cheek, and as he left the podium, an assistant chief put his arm around Moose’s shoulder in comfort.
It was a startling digression from Moose’s steady diet of anti-media harangues, cryptic comments aimed at the assailant(s), and, mostly, refusals to comment on matters “under investigation” (just about everything). The county’s gruff lawman had turned into its reassurer in chief; he embodied the region’s fear and frustration, winning rave reviews for convincing a jittery region that he would hunt the killer down at all costs.
By the end of the week, Moose profiles had appeared in the Post and the New York Times. Time magazine named the chief its Person of the Week. On Oct. 15, Moose hit at least three Sunday-morning talk shows.
Though the killings continued far from Moose’s Montgomery County bailiwick in the following weeks, he remained behind the podium, the face of a task force that comprised police departments from a half-dozen counties in Maryland and Virginia plus the D.C. police; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; and the FBI. Whenever the sniper was in the news—the entire month of October 2002—so was Chief Moose, usually during regularly scheduled press briefings, which were held whether or not there was any actual news to report.
After snipers John Muhammad and Lee Malvo were finally arrested, three weeks after the first killings, at an I-70 rest stop (with the aid, it should be noted, of the media Moose despised so much—radio and TV stations leaked the tag number of the blue Chevy Caprice that Muhammad was driving), Moose was showered with the accolades of a grateful public: He got standing ovations from an MCI Center crowd and was grand marshal of the MoCo Thanksgiving parade. A white sheet reading “THANKS MOOSE” was hung from an Inner Loop overpass. He was named one of People magazine’s 25 Most Intriguing People of 2002 and sat for a Barbara Walters interview.
Like Cincinnatus back to the fields, Moose went back to running his department, making an occasional guest appearance. One was at the mid-November Washington Business Hall of Fame awards, where he was gently roasted by movie-industry bigwig Jack Valenti and told the Post’s Lloyd Grove that he expected his moment in the limelight to soon expire. He hadn’t yet entertained any book or movie offers, he told Grove. “Most people don’t have that long of an attention span.”
But then he met “the Vig.” By the end of the year, David Vigliano, New York literary agent to Courtney Love, Jayson Blair, and other celebs, had begun courting Moose and his wife. He introduced the chief to former Newsweek and Vanity Fair writer Charles Fleming, who would co-write his book. By January, the chief was convinced that the public’s attention span would last at least until the fall of 2003—when Muhammad and Malvo’s trials were scheduled to begin. For the book alone, their attention was worth a $170,000 advance.
Unfortunately for Moose, MoCo’s ethics rules prevent county employees from profiting from their jobs unless they’ve been cleared by the county’s ethics board. Unwilling to give up his $160,619-a-year gig, the chief lawyered up. Moose and high-powered attorney Ron Karp went to war with the ethics board, and Duncan, thirsty for the publicity a book and movie would give the county, pressured board members to cave from the sidelines. Sandy Moose, who is white, compared her black husband’s struggle to those of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
But the ethics board stood its ground, and in May 2003, Moose quit. During his bout with the board, a good portion of the trust and good will that Moose had built with the public since he shed that tear was eroding. But his name didn’t leave the headlines. That July, revelations that the Mooses were suing Marriott for $200,000 for an alleged instance of racial profiling—they had been made to produce their room key in an employees-only area of a Hawaiian resort—didn’t reflect well on the Kind Guardian of Montgomery Fair. (They eventually settled for more than $10,000.)
Still, the Mooses had the book and a public ready for what publisher E.P. Dutton deemed “the only inside account of the hunt for the Washington, D.C., sniper.” But when Three Weeks in October: The Manhunt for the Serial Sniper was released, it contained very little in the way of an “inside account.” Instead, the book, which had to compete with similar volumes by Post and U.S. News & World Report reporters, revealed little more than what had been reported during the ordeal interspersed with details of Moose’s personal struggles with racism.
According to figures provided by Nielsen BookScan, Three Weeks in October has sold 35,000 hardcover copies in the 18 months since its release; a mass-market paperback edition has sold 2,100 copies in six months. Under a $4-profit-per-book figure reported during the ethics battle, Moose likely made little beyond the advance he got the past December. The USA network movie D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear, which featured Charles S. Dutton as the reassurer in chief (a role for which Post TV critic Tom Shales deemed Dutton “overqualified”), also failed to make a big splash.
But big business still beckoned: One consulting firm, Caliber Associates in Fairfax, Va., hired Moose soon after he left the chief’s post. According to Patrick Coleman, director of the firm’s justice and substance-abuse practice, Moose worked on a contract from a Department of Justice bureau on “the response to transnational crime.” That contract expired last spring. Coleman says there’s no immediate plans to rehire Moose, but he won’t rule it out: “We’d be thrilled to work with him again.”
And the lecture circuit has been lucrative for Moose: His wife says he’s given upward of 20 talks over the past year. His agency, Keppler Speakers, lists his appearances for $20,000 and up.
But Moose’s chiefin’ days, it seems, are over. The only step up for Moose would be to a major metropolitan force. With his résumé, which features his stints in Montgomery and Portland, Ore., light on dealing with chronic violent-crime problems, urban departments aren’t calling.
That’s OK, says Sandy Moose. Her husband has plenty of speaking gigs to keep him busy, not to mention his National Guard service, which will continue on and off through the end of the decade.
“We’re trying to be content for the moment,” she says. “Sometimes he reflects on his career and decisions, but no regrets. He’s a big proponent of making a decision and holding to it and not going into a downward spiral.”
2. Never Listen to Linda Cropp
Jim Graham would have won, and he knew it. His own survey said so.
Last spring, as the Ward 1 councilmember was considering a run against at-large incumbent Harold Brazil, his exploratory committee paid $13,000 to the Mellman Group, renowned Democratic pollsters, to handicap his chances.
And the poll, released that March, said they were good: The survey of 400 District Dems determined that, head to head, Graham had a 34 to 37 percent lead over Brazil in a hypothetical race for the at-large seat, with a hefty contingent still undecided. Graham’s lead was within the poll’s margin of error, but the better news was that Brazil was clearly vulnerable: Whereas only 11 percent of those polled said they viewed Graham negatively, 23 percent had unfavorable impressions of Brazil. A full 40 percent rated Brazil’s job performance as negative.
The bespectacled Scotsman had plenty of other reasons to like his chances, as well. For one, he had help from another Democratic at-large candidate, Hillcrest businessman Kwame Brown. The formula, to any District-politics observer, would be simple: Let Brazil and Brown split the black vote, and Graham’s massive name recognition and considerable get-things-done reputation would take care of the other upstart, 24-year-old Ward 3 resident Sam Brooks, no problem. Graham is also the one councilmember whose fundraising acumen could rival Brazil’s pandering to downtown big-business bigwigs.
Thus many D.C. citizens took Graham’s triumphant entry to the race—and their chance to have a candidate with a decent record to represent them citywide—as a fait accompli. Graham certainly acted as if there were no doubt in his mind that he’d eventually end up running. His exploratory committee raised over $100,000. In a letter to his supporters, he promised to “run a positive campaign.” At council hearings, Graham sparred with Brazil in bickering matches—a sharp departure from the collegial dais favored by D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp.
He told the Washington City Paper he was just waiting for a “warm spring day” to make his announcement. That day, it seemed, would come on May 6, 2004: Two days before, speaking to a Leadership Washington conference at the Ritz-Carlton, Graham said he would formally announce his candidacy that day.
But the announcement, set to come from the steps of the John A. Wilson Building with Councilmembers Kathy Patterson and Adrian Fenty behind him, never came. After Graham made his pre-announcement announcement to the conference, he powwowed with Brazil in a late-night meeting, and the two called Cropp.
By the end of that conversation, Cropp had convinced Graham not to run, calling an intramural race potentially “extremely divisive.” Certainly the race would have meant a “long hot summer,” as she put it in an earlier City Paper interview. But, hey, that’s politics.
“Divisive,” of course, also implied that a Graham win would mean all four at-large council seats would be held by whites in a majority-black city. But rather than let the D.C. electorate decide whether an all-white slate of at-large councilmembers was a good idea, Graham gave in to Cropp’s entreaties, sat back, and let Brazil’s legendary capacity for embarrassing himself kick into overdrive. In June 2004, the Post dropped two bombs on Brazil, a 14-year incumbent: First, it was reported that Brazil had sent members of his council staff to represent him in court for his private law practice. Then, at the end of the month, the paper reported that Brazil had had a “close personal relationship” with a former member of his staff; once it became too distracting for the married councilmember’s staff, an adviser had the mayor’s office find her a higher-paying job in the Office of Property Management. Meanwhile, Brown had developed some problems of his own: The candidate, who had a thin public-service record to begin with, had never voted in D.C.
But it was too late for Graham. Instead of coasting to a citywide office, he was left to deal with the workaday concerns of being Ward 1’s boss. And Ward 1 is high-maintenance. Though the city’s smallest, the ward is also its most diverse (a fact Graham repeats at nearly every opportunity), its most densely populated, and a hotbed for crime and quality-of-life problems. The ward is also Ground Zero for the city’s gentrification battles, increasingly full of affluent residents who want their experience with “city living, d.c. style” to be as smooth as possible. This means constant attention to the ward’s gang warfare, neglected apartment buildings, and Club U’s.
Here’s what Graham could have had: Consider At-Large Councilmember David Catania. Freed from having to make constituent services the crux of his reputation, the maverick onetime Republican has been able to carve out an impressive record on health care, tax relief, and combating government stupidity. Or, hell, consider Brazil: As a tax-cutting, pro-business kind of guy, he took his chairmanship of the Committee on Economic Development and made himself the go-to guy for the Federal City Council crowd.
Instead, Graham’s on a road heading straight to Harry Thomasville.
So far, his reputation rests on his ability to bring development dollars and neighborhood services to his constituents. Only the Michael Lorusso affair, which dropped into his lap when he served as chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights, Latino Affairs, and Property Management in 2002, proved to District residents he could fight citywide. Thanks to his cave, Cropp did give him a better platform—the chair of the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs—from which he can plot some shakeups and crack some skulls. So far, though, City Administrator Robert Bobb has stolen his thunder on reform of the notoriously inept Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Through a spokesperson, Graham says he has “no regrets” about his decision not to run: “I find the Ward 1 responsibilities very satisfying.” The spokesperson also relays that Graham has no current plans to run for citywide office.
It’s no surprise he has not expressed any interest in running for mayor in 2006—his challengers would have to split a lot of demographics for the white, openly gay councilmember to have a chance. The better bet is that Graham runs when Cropp’s seat opens up. But when that happens—whether next year, when the chairman could either run for mayor or opt not to run for another term as chairman, or later—Graham is not going to have a straw Harold Brazil to blow over.
3. Never Invest in Hockey
When Ted Leonsis was 25 years old, a harrowing plane ride prompted him to draft a list of 101 things to do before death. A couple of decades later, after the dot-com boom made the America Online vice chair a paper billionaire, he could check a couple of big-ticket items off:
He wanted to own a sports team. As anyone remotely attuned to the D.C. sports scene knows, he bought one and tried it out, but it didn’t go quite as well as he’d expected.
He wanted to drive a Ferrari. As he related during a washingtonpost.com chat session in 2003, he bought one and tried it out, but it didn’t go quite as well as he’d expected.
Leonsis, now 49, sold the car. He still owns the Washington Capitals.
At the May 12, 1999, surprise press conference announcing Leonsis’ acquisition of the Capitals from D.C. sports mogul Abe Pollin, the new owner was full of bluster, making himself out to be just what a faltering organization needed:
“This franchise needed a jolt of energy and focus.”
Leonsis and his business partner, Jonathan Ledecky, certainly had the hi-tech, new-economy pedigrees that could inject a little life into a stodgy enterprise—not to mention money. After he sold the company he started, Redgate Communications Corp., to America Online for $45 million in stock in 2004, Leonsis rode AOL to a net worth that was widely reported at the time of the Caps sale as around $1 billion. Leonsis touted his partnership’s energy and focus, but he forgot to mention its checkbook: At the time, it was later reported, the Capitals had little financial room to maneuver under Pollin, and Leonsis’ dot-com dollars solved that problem.
“I can tell you how to package up a brand and make sure the players connect with the audience.”
It’s not as if Leonsis was taking over a cash cow to begin with. When he signed his deal with Pollin, the hockey team had projected a $20 million loss for the prior season, with gross revenues far below the league’s $25 million average—and that was coming off a surprise run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. And there was little reason for Leonsis to think the team’s fortunes would be looking up anytime soon: The team had failed to make the 1999 playoffs, and season-ticket sales remained stagnant.
Leonsis had plenty of ideas to turn things around for the ailing team: Innovative ticketing plans to get more fans in the seats during midweek games. Improving the “arena experience” for families. Making Peter Bondra a household name.
His first step was hiring marketing chief Declan Bolger, who conceived the Florida Panthers’ “rat craze” in the mid-’90s, in which fans were encouraged to throw plastic rats onto the ice after a Panthers goal. The team’s Web site was revamped, an organ was added to the MCI Center, and employees cleaned the glass between periods.
“I’ll pay as much as it takes to win, but I want value.”
The cornerstone of Leonsis’ Capitals strategy was a Stalinesque five-year plan. But just as the Ukrainian famine foiled Uncle Joe, a poor showing on the ice—the team won only one game in the 2001 playoffs—made Leonsis impatient by Year 2. He could boast having “hands down the best Web strategy in all of sports,” but his hockey strategy couldn’t keep up.
Instead of the patient-rebuilding model of sports ownership, Leonsis turned to the tried-and-true George Steinbrenner approach: Dip into the free-agent market for the best talent available and ride the mercenary superstars to the top. Thus, in the biggest bet of his tenure, Leonsis spent $77 million over 11 years to steal superstar wing Jaromir Jagr from division rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
“You have to win. You can’t have a bad day. Results matter.”
Leonsis lost that bet. Jagr, hampered by knee problems, was a nonfactor for the first half of the 2001–2002 season, in which the Caps missed the playoffs. The superstar, by then clearly not the can’t-miss acquisition he had been billed as, still had five years and $55 million remaining on his contract. Very few other teams were able to pay that sort of salary, and none were in the market for an overpriced winger.
So Jagr and his monster paycheck were back for what had been planned as the culmination of the Leonsis Five-Year Plan. The 2003– 2004 season was supposed to feature legions of season-ticket-holders lining up to see playoff games well into May.
By November 2003, the team had had only three wins in 15 games, and Leonsis was telling the Post, “We’re kind of like the poster boys for what’s wrong with the league.” The team began cutting its payroll. When Bolger left for an NBA job, Leonsis didn’t replace him. He fired his second coach, Bruce Cassidy, in December. Toward the end of January, the New York Rangers finally agreed to take Jagr after the Caps agreed to eat $4.5 million a year on the rest of his contract.
“Everything we do with the Capitals will be ‘more entertainment.’”
Two days after the Jagr trade came the nadir of the Leonsis era: When the owner encountered a 20-year-old D.C. fan after the game hoisting a sign that read “Caps Hockey, AOL Stock—See a Pattern?” Leonsis engaged him in a shoving match—not the sort of hands-on fan relations he’d previously promoted.
And so the 2004 season wound down, with half-empty arenas hosting a team decimated by payroll trimming, a team that again came nowhere near a playoff berth. The Caps finished 14th out of 15 teams in the conference.
At least there wouldn’t be any more losing the next season.
Leonsis knew that a 2004 lockout was likely. The old collective-bargaining agreement was to be a dead letter on Sept. 15 of that year, and with declining revenues and low TV ratings to deal with, owners knew the concessions they’d need from the players’ union to stay profitable wouldn’t come easy. When Leonsis and Ledecky (who sold his interest back to Leonsis in 2001) bought the team, they were required to post a “lockout fund” sufficient to keep the team running in case of a protracted dispute.
When it finally came, it was almost a blessing for the Caps. Relieved of having to pay players’ salaries, even after the 2004 housecleaning, the team lost only half the $20 million yearly deficits that had become de rigueur.
But meanwhile, hockey fans are looking for “more entertainment” elsewhere. About 150 season-ticket-holders have already canceled their Caps subscriptions. And when (and if) the NHL and the Caps ever emerge from the labor dispute, Leonsis will be in an even tougher market than the one he was in before. The playoffs-bound Wizards and the Nationals will be greater competition for the region’s sports dollars. The future of the franchise is a 19-year-old Russian, Alexander Ovechkin, who is untested and unknown to all but the most serious hockey fanatics.
There is one glimmer of hope: When Leonsis bought the Caps, he also bought a minority share in Pollin’s Washington Sports & Entertainment, the company that holds the NBA Wizards and the MCI Center. At some point in the future, likely when Pollin dies, Leonsis & Co. (he’s added several partners since buying the team) will have the right of first refusal to buy his empire.
But the resurgent Wizards team this year could be bad news: By inflating the team’s value, could the ballers’ winning performance mean that when the time comes for Pollin to retire, Leonsis & Co. might not be able to cover an inflated price?
Posed that scenario, Leonsis—now worth $400 million due to declines in AOL (now Time Warner) stock—laughs: “Of course not.”
Leonsis says he has “zero intentions” to sell the Capitals, a venture that he enjoys piloting even in bad times—and intends to do so for the next “40 or 50 years…just like Mr. Pollin.”
“It’s not a career…it’s a toy,” he says.
Leonsis—and most sports-team owners—argue that even if his team loses money, it’s still a good investment, providing capital gains that even D.C. real estate couldn’t match. But for Leonsis, a hockey franchise isn’t the sort of sure-thing enterprise he might have expected in 1999. Who wants a team with no TV contract, no fans, and no players?
4. Never Become a Former D.C. Mayor
In 1998, Anthony A. Williams had some decisions to make. The District’s first chief financial officer had enjoyed, to all observers, a surprisingly stellar run. Mayor Marion Barry be damned, Williams had whipped the District’s fiscal situation into shape and appeased the control board, amassing a hefty reputation on the way.
As it happens, it was an election year, and Barry, having enjoyed his miraculous comeback, wasn’t up for another term. That left a gaggle of councilmembers vying for the mayor’s suite: Ward 2’s Jack Evans, Ward 7’s Kevin Chavous, and Brazil. To varying degrees, these were the guys responsible for the mess Williams had to clean up in the first place. Meanwhile, the draft-Williams movement was gaining volume. Mr. Bow Tie had his Matrix moment:
So, Tony, what do you do? What do you do?
The job was his for the taking. But did he really want it?
These days, when Mayor Williams stands at the podium and starts talking about bond ratings, homestead deductions, structural deficits, and tax-increment financing packages, you can imagine his mental journey back to that moment—you can almost hear him thinking, Boy, I wish I were Nat Gandhi right now. But besides his numbers fetish, Williams has plenty of reasons to think he never should have run for mayor in the first place.
The problem isn’t being a D.C. mayor—it’s being a former D.C. mayor. Invariably, ex-mayors have found it hard to move up in the world after leaving the District Building:
•After Walter E. Washington, the District’s first elected mayor, left office in 1978 at age 63, he joined the D.C. office of a New York law firm and a number of local corporate boards. A 1981 Post article heralded him as a “Potential Political Powerbroker,” but that role never materialized. Mostly he stuck to private life at his home on T Street NW in Ledroit Park, occasionally making public statements on behalf of mayors Williams and Sharon Pratt Kelly, such as when he came out strongly for Williams during his 2002 electoral-petition crisis. Virtually all newspaper references to Washington in the decade before his October 2003 death appeared in retrospective pieces or in his former aides’ obituaries.
•Sharon Pratt Kelly, she of the interregnum, also chose to keep a low profile after leaving office in 1995 after a single term—even though, at 50, she was in the prime of her professional life. So she taught a course at Harvard. She started a (never published) book and (now defunct) Web site. It wasn’t until the 1996 Democratic National Convention that she made a public appearance. Shortly thereafter, she was quoted as saying: “I will never again aid and abet the ‘inside the Beltway’ political system….I will never again promote or assist the Capitol Hill gang who so miserably fail the American people.”
So she tried her hand at consulting: Two years ago, the city awarded Pratt (she now uses only her maiden name) a $236,000 contract to consult on homeland-security matters, a subject on which the former mayor has no obvious qualifications. A whistle-blower in the Department of Health, which authorized the contract, deemed it a “giveaway of public funds to someone whose only apparent qualification is that she is politically connected.” A spokesperson for Pratt told the Post at the time, “How she makes a living now is not open for public review.”
•Marion Barry, of course, is the man who can’t leave, though it’s hard to blame the institutional character of the D.C. mayorship for his lack of job options. After Williams took the reins in ’98, the mayor for life was able to land a bond-consulting job with investment firm M.R. Beal & Co. From 1999 until last year, as the City Paper reported last year, Barry made as much as $60,000 a year in consulting fees and commissions. In the last years of his tenure, though, Barry’s monthly retainer had been halved by the firm. No matter—Barry’s got his nest egg, and it’s not likely to tap out anytime soon: Forget the 401(k)s and Roth IRAs; the Barry retirement plan is the Ward 8 councilmember-for-life plan.
Williams says he didn’t consider a potential ex-mayoral career when he first decided to run in ’98: “I didn’t have any thought about it at all. I still haven’t thought about it much,” he says.
These days, as the decision whether to run for a third term looms, the mayor knows well what his political steppingstones are: “There aren’t any.”
“I think [D.C. Congressional Delegate] Eleanor [Holmes Norton] ought to be in office forever, so…I would never ever run against her,” he says. “And I wouldn’t want that office anyway, so there really isn’t anything.”
Williams reports he’s received “absolutely no” job offers to date.
Even though Williams’ résumé will, by far, be the most substantial of any former D.C. mayor’s, his options will still be awfully limited. The truth is, Mr. Bow Tie just isn’t going to follow the career trajectories of other high-profile, miracle-working former big-city mayors:
•Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, now California’s secretary of education. Arnold’s got his finance wonk already: Warren Buffett. And with the Democrats out of power, Williams can’t expect a federal cabinet post anytime soon.
•Former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, now governor of Pennsylvania and oft-mentioned as a potential presidential candidate. When you have a political culture built on a distrust of Washington, being the mayor of Washington isn’t much of a steppingstone.
•Former New Orleans Mayor Marc H. Morial, now president and CEO of the National Urban League. Tony’s not the smooth-talking glad-hander that nonprofit boards love—he’s better at crunching numbers than raising them.
•Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, now highly paid consultant and oft-mentioned as a potential presidential candidate. Unfortunately, the plane crashed across the river.
•Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, now president of the American Bar Association. American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, anyone?
5. Never Let Swedes Steal Your Schtick
Ian Svenonius spent the ’90s molding himself into an indie-rock Superman.
Svenonius, the singer for legendary D.C. bands Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up, combined the sex appeal and flamboyant style of the archetypical ’70s rock vocalist with the frenetic sloganeering of the best punk frontmen. He and his bandmates—usually dressed in uniform and occupying various alter egos—stunned audiences across the world with their elaborately conceptualized, impeccably executed performances.
Nation of Ulysses was built on the foundation that the band was actually a platoon of jihadists. As “minister of information” and the “Spiv of Ulysses,” the slender, voluptuously coiffed former Corcoran art student roared, harangued, pleaded, and cooed his way through a pair of essential albums, 13-Point Program to Destroy America and Plays Pretty for Baby, before the band’s 1992 breakup. In 1995, Svenonius returned at the front of a new project with a new aesthetic, the Make-Up. The band ditched its hardcore sound for “gospel yeh-yeh,” a soulful mix of call-and-response lyrics, a booming rhythm section, and a heavy dose of Hammond organ.
The Svenonius template rubbed off on dozens of aspiring rockers. In the years after the Make-Up released its final album, Save Yourself, in 1999, a host of bands leapt to mainstream stardom by dressing in uniform, assuming larger-than-life personae, embodying a vaguely retro aesthetic, and spouting revolutionary politics.
Mixing these ingredients in varying proportions, Scandinavian outfits such as the Hives, the (International) Noise Conspiracy, the Flaming Sideburns, Division of Laura Lee, and the Soundtrack of Our Lives took their neo-garage-rock to heavy-rotation slots on modern-rock radio, dozens of ’zine covers, and MTV2-mainstay status. Svenonius, as the godfather of the phenomenon, should have been poised to break out as well.
Unfortunately, Ian Svenonius was nowhere to be found at the time. He had become David Candy.
Sweet moniker aside, the music is hardly full of radio-friendly bubble gum. One track on the first and only Candy album, 2001’s Play Power, has Svenonius/Candy reciting a somewhat lecherous ode over some vibraphone-heavy lounge pop: “Hi. I’m David Candy/Don’t worry/I will look after you/I understand you/I already know you/I have always known you…/I’m the one you’ve always been waiting for/And now I’m here, with you, forever.”
On the 19-minute “Diary of a Genius,” the spoken-word format repeats itself, in this instance over a Doorsy organ vamp: “Dear diary, I woke at the usual time/Everything is basically the same as the day before/I checked my ID/I am still—David Candy/The trick today will be to try to affect fate’s great wheel and its sentence upon us.” For the remaining quarter-hour, the schtick repeats itself over several different treatments that sound as if they had been lifted from Jacques Brel B-sides.
Another track, “redfuchsiatamborine&gravel,” offers a pudding recipe spoken over flamenco strumming.
In the series of meticulously constructed characters Svenonius has inhabited, none were anywhere near as fey and vapid as Candy. It’s noteworthy that the character wasn’t Svenonius’ idea; it was the brainchild of Mike Alway, a British impresario responsible for a number of retro-revival studio concoctions, of which Candy was only the latest.
Throughout his career, Svenonius’ bands typically played out like a team of restaurateurs—the Spiv stood in front, selling the hell out of the schtick, getting the patrons in the door; the rest toiled more or less anonymously in the kitchen, pumping out an irresistible, high-powered amalgam of hardcore punk and bluesy garage-rock riffage. For the David Candy project, however, the usual backup crew—guitarist James Canty and the crack rhythm section of bassist Michelle Mae and drummer Steve Gamboa—was gone.
Svenonius declined to give an interview regarding Play Power. He concedes in an e-mail that the album is “obviously flawed,” but defends its concept: “I think it’s a cool record in the tradition of Yvette Mimieux and Rod McKuen, who I am a huge fan of. It’s one of dozens of records I’ve been part of over a long ‘career’ and one of the most unique. It’s certainly more interesting than so many half rate modern ‘noise’ or ‘dark wave’ bands.”
These days, as the Hives & Co. are touring behind their follow-up albums and enjoying another round of worldwide media attention, the Spiv’s latest band, Weird War (formerly Scene Creamers), is readying a new album, Illuminated by the Light.
Weird War hews closely to the classic Svenonius-band formula: This time, the rigid aesthetic and sloganeering (he recently posted a 2,700-word manifesto on the power of art vis-à-vis the state on the band’s Web site) is melded to druggy, ’70s-tinged rock full of fuzz guitar and pouty vocals. And Svenonius is as charismatic and as hardworking a frontman as ever. The band sounds ready to follow the Scandinavians into the pages of Rolling Stone and Billboard.
But while he was indulging his Rod McKuen fetish, a funny thing happened: Rock ’n’ roll finally caught up to the Spiv. He was once the foremost evangelist of rock-as-revolution, but now he’s preaching to the converted.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Ben Claassen III.