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The Revisionist's Guide to Rock 'n' Roll and World History
Ian Svenonius, the charismatic and loquacious front man of such iconic hard-core and indie bands as Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, and Weird War, has written a book, "The Psychic Soviet."
This isn't your run of the mill rock 'n' roll book. It's not a memoir packed with insidery details about frenzied shows in dingy clubs, smashed-up hotel rooms, and broken down touring vans. It doesn't put a magnifying glass on a particular genre or give a band-by-band, song-by-song account of its rise and fall.
No, the "Psychic Soviet" is a tad more ambitious. It aims at nothing less than the reinterpretation of Western cultural and political history since the start of Cold War.
In the book's title essay, Svenonius -- sounding like a cross between Wilhelm Reich and a mad scientist character out of a Pynchon novel -- coins the phrase psychological geopolitics (psycho-geo-tics for short) and immediately jumps into an explanation of the Cold War in terms of the primordial psychological conflict between Mother Russia and Father United States.
After that, Svenonius is off to the races. He goes on to argue that the television show Seinfeld was an integral part of the ruling class's effort to reshape the American city into an "amoral upper-class playground." Then, he compares the Beatles' "White Album" and the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," reading the first as an expression of industrial Sovietology and the second as an expression of agrarian Maoism. And he reinterprets punk as a classic case of "gaysploitation."
Provocative and often very funny, Svenonius writes with a confidence and swagger one would expect from someone used to performing in front of large crowds. Svenonius has wrapped his musings, hyperbolic nuggets and all, into one of the publishing year's more unusual packages.
I talked with Svenonius about the meaning of rock 'n' roll, and what the Cold War and capitalism have to do with this genre.
WireTap: To start off, could you tell me about the impetus for the book?
Ian Svenonius: Well, I've been making music in different bands for a long time, since the early '90s. I'm part of the work force of rock 'n' roll, part of the labor force, so I've seen intimately the conditions on the ground. I feel I'm uniquely poised to comment on rock 'n' roll because I've seen a lot of the transformations that have taken place.
I've written about music and culture and politics for different magazines, and I just thought it would be good to counter a lot of the histories about rock 'n' roll that I had been reading by journalists, historians, and culture people. They're so obsessed with genealogy, and they all kind of accept a certain kind of cultural narrative. I wanted to make something that would present a different kind of cultural narrative, that would talk about rock 'n' roll and culture in a different context, for example, the Cold War and capitalism. I didn't just want to talk about how much rock owes to the blues.
WT: So your book adds a focus on the Cold War and capitalism to the standard account of rock 'n' roll as a cultural force?
IS: Well, the book is actually an assemblage of essays. A lot of them were written for different periodicals over a five-year period. So the book isn't really a book, it's a collection. … Some were written to create a larger context for the other essays, for example, the first essay, "The Psychic Soviet," I wanted to talk about an alternate history of the Cold War.
We live in a country where the official narrative is so triumphalist about having vanquished the Evil Empire. You always hear the pundits and the fascists and the New York Times talking about the Cold War triumph. So I wanted to talk about rock 'n' roll in the context of the Cold War and offer a different take on the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
Rock 'n' roll is creation, it's inception. Rock 'n' roll wasn't new after World War II, but it was a latent feature of Southern life. Then suddenly it exploded into a paradigmatic music form. So why did that happen? Why did rock 'n' roll come to the fore during the Cold War and in a way kind of end with the end of the Cold War? The point is, why did rock 'n' roll have this particular history? Rock 'n' roll is actually undefined as a music form. It has no definition, it's completely blank. Rock 'n' roll is very neoliberal. It assimilates everything into its maw. It's very American.
WT: I'd like to follow up on your point about rock 'n' roll reaching some sort of end with the end of the Cold War. It's been 15 or so years since the end of that conflict. From your perspective as both a musician and a writer, what is rock 'n' roll's significance now?
IS: Well, obviously it still exists, and it is still very important to people. It no longer has the role as the primal cultural narrative that it did from Elvis up through the '80s. No, it obviously takes a back seat. Hip hop has cultural cachet. It is much larger and much more influential. In the essay "Rock and Rolligion," I talk about rock 'n' roll as an ideological invention to counter communism and to counter Christianity because it was hawking consumerism and the Keynesian economic system. Under capitalism, rock 'n' roll is really capitalism's secret exponent. But once the Cold War is won, once socialism is vanquished, rock 'n' roll is no longer needed.
WT: This is one of the first books I've encountered that has instructions. Why did you feel that was necessary?
IS: Let me think. That's interesting. I don't know, I just like things that have instructions. For example, I just hate how modern computers … you get them out of the box, and they don't have instructions. That's unfortunate because computers are really misused.
I just wanted people to understand that the book's size and its design are not incidental. They are intrinsic to what the book is. In fact, the design of the book is really a big part of the reason for its being made, for it not just existing in cyberspace or being a fanzine. The instructions also say that the book shouldn't be used in certain ways by certain people. Who those people are is deliberately left open, although I think it's self-explanatory.
WT: Writing has always been a big part of your work. I was looking over the old Nation of Ulysses and Make-Up albums, and they prominently feature manifestos and texts of various sorts. What is the relationship between writing and music for you?
IS: Rock 'n' roll is this incredible form of music because it can include everything. It can include writing on album sleeves. It always has and it always can include visual art. It can include fashion, costumes, film and videos. Or groups can make a movie like the Beatles did. Or poetry. Or theater. It includes everything, and that's why it's this neoliberal perfect art form. It really realizes Wagner's gesamtkunstwerk, you know, the total piece of art.
I always talk a lot on stage when I play with my groups, and we always include writing. But rock 'n' roll isn't a lecture. It's not a lecture, and you can't go all the way with a lot of ideas. And you don't want to be pedantic on a record sleeve. So even though music can include writing, it's not always the best place to get into deep ideas.
WT: The essays in the book focus on many current events and contemporary issues, but there is very little mention of the war or terrorism. How do the war in Iraq and terrorism color your thinking about politics and culture?
IS: The reason I don't talk about the current war is because it is just a continuum. This is just American imperialism. The United States of America has bombed a different country every year since World War II. So it's not a new thing. In fact, it's a continuation, just foreign policy as usual. It's a little more extreme, more extraordinary because they're actually occupying a country in the Middle East. Remember Clinton bombed Iraq every day of his eight-year tenure and George Bush Sr. bombed Iraq after the war was over. It's not President Bush and it's not the war in Iraq. It's the United States of America and it's capitalism -- those are the problems.
WT: I want to go back to something you said earlier. If rock 'n' roll is such a neoliberal institution, are you cynical about it?
IS: No, no because rock 'n' roll is also this incredibly magical thing. Like I said, rock 'n' roll is this non-term, it doesn't mean anything. Music is transformative, music is inspiring, music is the thing we love -- everybody loves it.
WT: Are there more books in the future?
IS: I don't know. I've never written just to write or for money. I'd love to do that, but I'm not wired that way. If I get inspired to write something, I'll write it.
JS Brady writes about politics and culture from his home base in Los Angeles.