Supernatural Strategies by Nicholas Earhart

Nick Earhart on the ghostly discussions in Ian Svenonius’s Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group.

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19

Buck Thompson playing blues guitar outside of his house, 1985, Hastings, Florida. Courtesy of the State Library and Archives of Florida.

At the heart of Ian Svenonius’s witty, incisive new book Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group is a remarkably simple question, something teenagers have been asking each other for years: How are we gonna start a band? Svenonius, who is a lifer punk himself, playing in groups like Nation of Ulysses and Weird War and host of the Vice TV series Soft Focus, turns to some unusual sources for an answer: dead rock stars, contacted via séance from beyond the grave.

Brian Jones shows up early on. So do Buddy Holly and Mary Wells. Svenonius writes that “the voices of our ghosts are unrecordable, so we hurriedly transcribed their words directly onto the pages of the book.” But the spirits all sound alike, and they all sound like Svenonius. It’s hard to believe Brian Jones would ever say something like “the rules of comportment are always abstract, arbitrary, vague, and more aesthetic than purely logical.” But then, Svenonius makes no effort to characterize his subjects in any meaningful way. Instead they’re interlocutors, giving him some wiggle room to make high-flown arguments about—among other things—the Cold War, selling out, drug use, recording technology, cultural imperialism, and sex.

Svenonius points out again and again that rock ‘n’ roll is as much about ideology as it is music. His argument could be summed up in the conversation with Richard Berry, who wrote “Louie, Louie,” maybe the most essential rock song of all. Berry, his ghost, says, “Since the USA is a nation founded on the ideas of individualism, rebellion, evangelism, white supremacy, black slavery, expulsion of native peoples, expansionism, commerce, and industry, these values all play a part in the formation of the USA’s primary and arguably greatest cultural export.” He is talking about rock ‘n’ roll, of course, its world-shaking power, and its unique ties to the great and horrible threads of American history. It’s the identification with American culture, Svenonius seems to be saying, and the dread and confusion that comes with it, that gives rock music its propulsive force.

Later Willie Mae Thornton, the first singer of “Hound Dog,” chimes in on punk. In light of the narcissism and greed of American culture, she suggests “subcultural bonding is a radical act.” It’s another dimension of American irony: young people are alienated by the solipsistic, aggressive ethos that is broadcasted by rock ‘n’ roll, and they use the music as a grassroots tool for cultural belonging. This macro-micro dynamic between influence and meaning is again a motor, a sort of narrative tension, for the music. Svenonius’s notion of the “Group”—a term that here possesses an almost Platonic specificity—ties back to the formation of street gangs and the sort of territorial self-definition that only happens via displacement, youth, and the need for belonging. Here again the grand stage of American conquest is reduced to cell groups of deeply compressed cultural meaning.

In the second section of the book, the spirits convene to draw up a how-to manual for making a rock ‘n’ roll group. Each chapter addresses a different aspect of getting a band together. Svenonius talks about touring and drugs and how to make a record and how to make an image. He uses Zodiac signs to assess band chemistry and compares the discipline a rock band must maintain to the code of conduct followed by the Viet Cong. Throughout he gives advice on everything from whether and how much you should have sex to ways of keeping it cool when you’re talking to someone. A lot of it is tongue in cheek, but underneath there’s serious commentary about whether the music can endure the hypocrisy and phony mythology that surrounds it.

Obviously Svenonius’s discussion of rock music is far from supernatural. If anything, it debunks the notion that musicians are untouchable, mystical beings by showing just how much planning, how much strategy goes into making a successful group. And while there is a cynicism that pervades this book, Svenonius is nevertheless coming to the topic as a rock ‘n’ roll fan, a practitioner, and someone who believes truly in the art form. Toward the end, he says if the music is “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.” You wonder if he’s talking about himself, but then you also wonder if he might be right.

Nick Earhart is a writer and editor living in New York City.

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