Last Monday, Greenpoint's WORD bookstore hosted (depending on who you asked) a reading, a teach-in, a protest, and/or a seance. The interdisciplinary mayhem didn't stop there: Ian Svenonius, who was ostensibly promoting his new book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group, is a D.C.-based musician whose bands include Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, Weird War, and Chain and the Gang; and, judging by the reaction of the fifty-odd people crammed into WORD's basement, the whole thing would have fit comfortably at a Littlefield comedy night.
Before we go on, here's a quick Svenonius playlist. We begin with Nation of Ulysses, whose style (suits, jazz leanings) and savagery (feedback, frequent onstage injuries) influenced countless bands, broke countless hearts, and earned Svenonius the title "Sassiest Boy in America."
(Not on Spotify? Neither is the short-lived Cupid Car Club. Scroll to the bottom for a song of theirs, plus the Make-Up documentary Blue is Beautiful and an episode of Sveonius's chat show, Soft Focus.)
"We're having a teach-in, which concerns the book Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group." So began the WORD event. Svenonius wore a flared suit and a pinky ring. He spoke softly, with a slight lisp. He looked more like David Johansen's dapper uncle than the man I'd seen onstage a dozen years ago: back then, watching the Make-Up at a bowling alley in Chicago, I saw him as a cross between Prince and Cornelius from the original Planet of the Apes.
He'd only been speaking for a few minutes when shouts erupted from the top of the stairs. "STOP THIS BOOK! STOP THIS BOOK!" About five people came marching down with signs, one of which read "SUPERNATURAL STRATEGIES IS NOT SUPER OR NATURAL." The protesters demanded that the books be rounded up and destroyed, on the grounds that it robs living rock stars of their professional secrets. Svenonius offered to compromise by summoning the spirits that had lent their otherwordly insights to the book. Then he called four audience members to the stage and put on a black robe with a pointy hood, and the seance began.
"Oh hello," he intoned. "This is Paul McCartney." Our first contact with the beyond was, confusingly, still alive. So was the second: Little Richard.
"You're not dead either!" said one of the four partipants. (They read from a script and managed to stay in character even when Svenonius interrupted them with ghostly moans.)
"No," said Svenonius. "I'm in an internet chatroom."
Brian Jones and Jim Morrison also turned up, each imparting a rock 'n' roll lesson that Svenonius then scrawled on a chalkboard. Finally, he addressed the demands of the protesters (now leaning against the wall and drinking promotional beers): if every one of us bought a book upstairs, then took it out onto Franklin Street and burned it, the secrets of rock 'n' roll immortality would once again be safe.
Leafing through Supernatural Strategies in the signing line, I went slightly crosseyed: "[T]he mystification of the process is perpetuated via legend-weaving institutions such as rock fanzines, fawning hagiographies, and VH1's Behind the Music…" Ever since the first Nation of Ulysses album, 13-Point Program to Destroy America, with its back-cover instructions on the "mutilation of fingertips," Svenonius has espoused a deadpan and slightly antiquated political rhetoric. To what extent that voice is ironic is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. But there's nothing vague about that voice when you're actually hearing it: onstage, whatever concept he's currently engaging falls away, and there he is, a rock 'n' roll animal caged within a nerdy kid. At WORD, and back at that Chicago bowling alley, he was definitely channeling something.