Ian F. Svenonius
Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group is the new book authored by one Ian F. Svenonius, a true countercultural provocateur of the American indie underground. Svenonius rose out of the fabled Washington, D.C. punk scene with his group Nation of Ulysses (you can see him having an illuminating chat with D.C. punk godfather Ian MacKaye here). However, that ensemble, along with Svenonius’ other band efforts like The Make-Up, Weird War, and Chain & the Gang, always proved difficult to pigeonhole, designed to challenge orthodoxy, musical and otherwise. Indeed, throughout his notoriety, Svenonius has proven an evangelist for truly alternative views that reflect punk/indie’s roots linking dada, Situationism, and the D.I.Y. 'zine diaspora.
Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group, recently put out by the great independent publisher Akashic Books founded by Svenonius’ fellow D.C.-bred peer Johnny Temple of Girls Against Boys, is actually Svenonius’ second tome, following his iconoclastic first book The Psychic Soviet published in 2006 by the legendary indie imprint Drag City. In Supernatural Strategies…, Svenonius applies his maverick thinking cap to elucidating the essence of the pop narcotic, with typically incendiary, absurdist, and incisive results. While we are loathe to quote press releases here at The Daily Swarm, we couldn’t deny how succinctly this passage summed up Svenonius’ recent literary effort: “The book outlines the significance of group names, live concerts, vans, sex, drugs, band photos, records, record labels, recording studios, and all the other bugaboos which serially feature in group life. It explains the future relevance of groups and the strategies that groups can use to successfully understand and embody their destinies, historic roles, and responsibilities. It is a must-read for anyone who is alive in the early portion of the new century.”
To bring attention and investigation to Svenonius’ distinct point of view, we present here this exclusive excerpt from Supernatural Strategies… – the chapter simply entitled “Drugs.” Please note: the opinions expressed here are exclusively that of Svenonius – and perhaps a bunch of other people who aren’t dumbasses with blinders on…
Because the only story that Americans are supposed to find fascinating is drug use, groups are often pressured to ingest copious amounts of substances that are arbitrarily illegal. This, or so the hope goes, will weave a legend. Meanwhile, so-called “drugs” are credited with much of human creativity over the past millennium—particularly during the rock ’n’ roll period. This creates all kinds of problems with publishing, which is one of the group’s primary sources of income. Don’t let drugs get the credit that is due to you.
Still, drugs are central to the identity of many groups since they are contraband and therefore secret, strange, macho, and highly personal. They’re a natural fit for the modern group, which wants to be a kind of private club or cult of the anointed. If you choose to be a drug group, some things to consider are which drugs will be in vogue during your ascent and what kind of music will be appropriate to serve as the soundtrack to their usage.
Predicting drug trends could be an enormous asset for a group, akin to a stockbroker knowing how to play the market effectively. If one can be associated with the resurgence or popularization of a particular drug—as Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were with the marijuana vogue of the early 1990s, or as the Grateful Dead was with LSD—hits needn’t be produced and the music can become a tertiary concern.
The ascendency of a particular narcotic as the “it” drug of one or more subcultures shouldn’t be difficult to guess if one maintains an awareness of geopolitical trends. Since the availability of narcotics in the USA is controlled by the government and its allies in organized crime, covert military actions and assassinations provide a clue as to which part of the world the substances will be coming from. With the war in Southeast Asia as a catalyst, a feature of the late ’60s and early ’70s was the enormous volume of heroin flooding US streets, imported by the CIA in conjunction with the Indochina-connected Corsican underworld, a.k.a. “The French Connection.” Heroin from the Golden Triangle (Laos, Burma, Thailand) was transported care of the CIA’s own airline (Air America). It was also sometimes couriered on regular army planes, hidden in the bodies of dead GIs. Most heroin was sold directly to GIs during their time in Vietnam, but the surplus made it stateside, with devastating effects. “Smack” quickly spread into the mainstream US pop and rock music genres.
Cocaine enjoyed enormous popularity in the ’70s and early ’80s in conjunction with the war against the Sandinistas and the CIA sponsorship of South American juntas in Argentina and Chile. The coca plant supplied “the company” with liquid cash for teaching torture techniques to South American police state bogeymen against labor leaders, artists, Communists, foreign exchange students, and whoever else they arbitrarily fingered. Stateside, the white powder’s proliferation helped shape the music, lifestyle, and loose morality of the disco years.
The cocaine high is sociable, sexual, and anti-intellectual, but can lead to paranoia, megalomania, insanity, worship of material luxury, and garish costumery. Cocaine enjoyed a resplendent comeback in the ’00s due to “Plan Colombia,” the US’s intervention on the side of the right-wing government in that country’s coke-fueled civil war. Cocaine’s resurgence led to the sellout vacuity of early twenty-first-century “indie rock,” and the aesthetic of braggadocio, vulgarity, and amorality typified by that generation’s rap stars.
Occasionally a new drug is introduced with great success, like the CIA’s own LSD revolution, which transformed the ’60s anti-war movement into a schizophrenic, mystified fuzzball, as well as the same organization’s crack innovation, which rehabilitated the wealthy’s use of cocaine by creating a poorer, tawdrier cousin. Crack’s proliferation amongst the lower classes provided the pretext for a money-making “War on Drugs” which enabled a highly profitable prison-building boom and a new level of police repression against the impoverished. Now, however, the fad for pharmaceuticals has bumped the predictable drug cycle out of whack. The old drugs are largely unnecessary since doctors aggressively and legally dope any stubborn, interesting, or unusual person into passive conformity. This has been a crisis for the architects of the Afghanistan War (2001–), which was contrived in an attempt to corner the heroin market.
Sometimes, innovation can create drugs on a grassroots level. Project Pat’s famous “sizzurp” is one example of a homemade drug. The Ramones championing airplane glue is another; and Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow,” the smoking of banana peels, is a third. These brave souls were unwilling to submit to the CIA-Mafia’s prescription for dependency and created their own mind-altering agents.
The drug your group takes will represent an aesthetic decision rather than a penchant for the drug itself. Groups’ identities are often closely linked to various drugs, and the group with no ideas or personality can often enlist a drug to give it one. Heroin begets a doomed, devil-may-care, street-poet personality for the group, and the lifestyle precipitated by addiction to it will give them an instantaneous, easily defined image. Cocaine groups are typically “gonzo” expositions of sweat, enthusiasm, and hyperbole. Marijuana groups are droning, somewhat introverted, unintelligible paranoids. Alcohol is by far the prevalent addiction for groups since the rock industry is a junior tentacle of the alcohol industry. Groups, along with flat-screen TVs, video poker, and disc-jocks, are most often utilized to distract and placate bar patrons.
Record production is a kind of drug-making. Record collectors are addicts and the narcotic effect of pop music is widely recognized. The different sorts of music and various formats are different types of drugs with very different effects. Rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s and ’60s was proliferated via 45 rpm records, which were cheap and disposable, and gave the listener a euphoric high for a few moments, followed by an urge for something which was exactly the same and yet novel, different. The rush from a 45 was analogous to the feeling produced by crack cocaine. Due to the compulsive desire for more and more, the 45 era was a golden age of music in terms of sheer volume of good songs and dynamic groups (just as the crack era was a golden age for government-encouraged addiction), but the records were required to be extraordinarily concise. Each song was expected to deliver either a novel noise or a sensual thrill within a few seconds of the needle hitting the vinyl. Otherwise the base-head listener would be scrambling for a new platter.
The 45 was largely abandoned when it was replaced with actual cocaine, massively proliferated in the ’70s. Or perhaps the explanation is vice versa: cocaine was used by addicts as a stand-in drug when the industry abandoned the 45 format.
LPs or “long-playing “records, were more akin to a marijuana high. Double albums were heroin.
Meditative, at fifteen minutes a side, long-playing records were for “deep” listening. The sides could careen up and down in mood and create drama and narrative. The most successful LPs were ones like Hot Buttered Soul or James Brown: Live at the Apollo, records which transported the listener to an unusual scenario. Double albums (such as Ummagumma, Freak Out!, and Blonde on Blonde) promised total immersion and were in vogue in the late ’60s, coinciding with the height of heroin chic. CDs and iPods are from the pharmaceutical era of mandatory drug use. They swirl, swish, and splatter in the periphery, creating an atmosphere but never demanding or requiring focused attention.
While drugs used to be about “taking a trip,” “expanding horizons,” “destroying the ego,” or “exploring consciousness,” modern drugs (AdderallTM, Xanax©, Klonopin®) are about making “wrong” things—such as supposed personality disorders—“right.” They are correctives, designed to help the user conform to normative social behavior and work modes by ironing out hard-to-take behavior. Accordingly, modern groups are loath to have personality, being formalistically obsessed with copying the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Ramones, the Stooges, or some other group. Inspired by the pharmaceutical drugs, they want to be “right” in their decisions, correct in the way they sound, like something an influential Internet magazine has said was important. This is why they slavishly ape institutionalized forms.
Capitalism’s business models and economy are based on addiction. New models of automobiles, new styles in clothes, new sounds, new films, up-to-date telephones, “refurbished” kitchens, and so on. Drugs are just one more aspect of enforced compulsion and dependency on consumer goods. Groups are attempting to create a taste for their sound, which becomes a habit—an addiction of a sort. Designing a popular sound is akin to designing a drug. A “hit” record is feeding a compulsion for a particular, magical sound. For the listener—once hooked—no other sound will do. Follow-up hits by hit-makers are often sound-alikes, designed to scratch the itch begat by the artist’s last monster disc. James Brown’s string of similar “popcorn” songs (“Mother Popcorn,” “Lowdown Popcorn,” “Let a Man Come in and Do the Popcorn,” etc.) are just some of the countless examples of songs which addressed an audience’s fiendish desire for a very distinct aural sensation.
The Internet is the most profound drug and one which has become an enormous influence on music. Internet addiction isn’t just socially tolerated—it is aggressively encouraged. It leads one to a state of constant distraction, the desire for incessant stimulation, and an unquestioning trust in and worship of the authority of a monolithic “web.” For these addicts, all answers to all questions are found from a single source—the “Wikipedia.” This monolith is a dreadful public work, which—like an ethereal version of the Egyptian pyramids—is labored on incessantly by uncompensated, fanatical zombies. The Internet drug drives its fiends to create more and more of their addicting substance—the Internet itself. They construct new web pages, “links,” and what they call “content,” all of which make their “webmasters” and other debauched Internet overlords wealthy beyond comprehension.
Groups who stop taking drugs replace them with coffee addiction or other obsessive behavior, which they flaunt in a macho display they call a “work ethic.” This is a guilty impulse borne of the desire to “make up for lost time.” Drugs are time-consuming and once one is not taking them, it becomes apparent to the former user how many years were used up with what is essentially an expensive version of sleeping late.
However, group members who are encumbered with a guilt complex for their “bad behavior” needn’t fret. Without a drug habit, a fast-moving rock memoir is nearly impossible to write. Both for the teetotaler and for the substance abuser, drug addiction is the socially prescribed outlaw lifestyle. Hollywood makes glamorous films about it and its victims regale each other with stories of their wild years’ heroism in closed meetings. As opposed to bestiality, shoplifting, wife swapping, political activism, or grand theft auto, drugs represent a malignant social behavior that is institutionalized, validated, and actually beloved by our society. Ever since the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, addiction has become the neat packaging of mankind’s struggle with temptation, betrayal, genetic programming, mortality, and sin—something everyone “gets” and relates to. Drugs also touch on social obsessions such as class, morality, and race. Meanwhile, Americans in particular love a redemption story. In fact, as evangelical Christians—either latent or actual—they demand one and they won’t trust you if you aren’t so equipped.
A group history of drug abuse is a tool to achieve this kind of comforting narrative arc. It’s retold again and again in documentaries and fictional stories. Addiction to drugs is America’s official vice and the pat explanation for so many “broken” lives. Those who have dead-end existences without a handy “habit” aren’t victims. They’re just lazy losers, degenerates, and possibly mentally ill. They certainly aren’t sexy. The addict is different. The drug user, with his or her officially designated “bad” and “outlaw” life choices, is the “sin-eater” who absorbs governmental inadequacy, social neglect, dead-end job markets, domestic abuse, horrible schooling, and existential angst, as well as the wrongdoings of their societal peers.
In a sense, mourning drug use and the wasted talent or broken families thus begotten is just hand- wringing over mortality itself. The drug user’s explicit pissing away of her time is a salve to the nonaddict’s conscience and also an erotic reminder of impending doom.