Ian Svenonius’s voicemail message is an excerpt from an old 45 recording of Gilligan’s Island star Jim Bacchus soliciting ideas for the perfect Christmas party. The underground writer and longtime indie musician remembers a time when everything was recorded on vinyl, no matter how important or unimportant it may have been. “I miss 45s,” Svenonius says. “They used to put out everything on 45s and then the powers-that-be decided that CD’s were the thing and 45s become forgotten.”
The author of the underground classic The Psychic Soviet is back with his much-anticipated follow-up, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group, in which he dives into a number of equally controversial and thought-provoking topics, ranging from the influence of street gangs on the structure of rock groups, to how rock-n-roll, far from being a sexually liberating force is actually a tool of sexual repression, to how the corporatization and monetization of rock has been harnessed as a propaganda instrument against Socialist ideology.
He was driven to write Supernatural Strategies to help combat the “school of rock” indoctrination of kids who are just beginning their musical journey. “Our parent culture isn’t horrified by rock-n-roll anymore,” he says. “In fact, they want to perpetuate it. I wrote the book not just as a ‘how-to’ of how to create a real rock band, but also as a socio-economic warning. We live in an apocalyptic culture. Everyone seems to expect everything to end, and our pop culture mirrors that,” he says.
“ Rock-n-roll was started by outlaws. Many of the biggest names came from street gangs, and they created groups modeled on the same structure,” Svenonius explains. “They were outside of the law. The Beatles in Hamburg dressed like a motorcycle gang, John Phillips from the Mamas & The Papas was a street tough—they all either came from gangs or wanted to look and act that way.”
But, he feels, rock far too quickly become all about money. While on the surface it appeared dangerous, it was designed to be only offensive enough to garner attention, to sell records without actually alienating the mass audience. “I suspect Led Zeppelin wasn’t as much about debauchery as people think,” he says. “They worked way too hard. What they probably had was a good publicist.”
And in many ways it’s even worse for today’s rock stars. “Stars used to go to Palm Springs for their debauchery, away from the media,” Svenonius says. “Now, they can’t go anywhere.” Which is one of the reasons he feels the modern rock band is veering ever closer to becoming merely totemistic, in imminent danger of outliving its usefulness. Which is something he earnestly wants to change, if not prevent outright.
Supernatural Strategies is his reaction to the diminishment of rock bands, an instructional guide that doubles as a warning device, a philosophical text, and an exercise in terror. Along the way, Svenonius also willfully and somewhat gleefully punctures many of the preconceived notions about rock music.
In the ’50s, when rock separated itself from blues and country by taking elements from each and adding its own essence, the biggest fear reaction from mainstream society was about sex. Elvis’ pelvis was going to lead to mass corruption of the innocent teens of America, to use one well-known example. Svenonius doesn’t buy it, and says if anything, the reverse is true.
“ Rock-n-roll is not about sex, it’s about sexual repression,” he explains. “It displaces sexual energy into something unattainable. You could scream at The Beatles, but you weren’t going to [have sex with] them.”
He also communes with dead rock stars; Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison, to name a few. Which, understandably, gives Supernatural Strategies a rather unique place in the annals of rock literature.
He believes that listening to “Louie, Louie” composer Richard Berry expostulate on how a nation “founded on the ideas of individualism, rebellion, evangelism, white supremacy, black slavery, expulsion of native peoples, expansionism, and commerce” all play a part in the formation of the U.S.’s primary and arguably greatest cultural export, he has been able to tap into a more complete picture of rock than the normal “myopic critic or historian egghead” would be able to achieve.
Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ’n’ Roll Group is not an easy book. It’s not technically difficult to read—far from it. What it does do is make you step back and think (maybe for the first time) about what rock-n-roll really is…and is not.
Book Signing with author Ian Svenonius
Friday, May 10, 7 p.m.
Winder Binder Gallery
40 Frazier Ave.