Ian F. Svenonius
Akashic: 250 pp., $14.95 paper
Rock 'n' roll is not a joke, a pastime or a hobby. Nor is it a mystical "calling" that only a chosen few can pull off. Rather, as Ian F. Svenonius argues in his treatise on the makings of a great musical group, "Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Band," it is a set of skills and rules that can be mastered with practice and the proper instruction.
Svenonius hasn't written a basic "How to Make It in the Music Business" book. Rather, the writer, online talk show host and, most important, singer in a series of breathtaking rock 'n' roll bands (Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, Chain & the Gang), is drawing a line in the sand and doing so with what he hopes will finally define the undefinable. (The book's independent publisher, Akashic Books, is best known for its breakout fake children's book, "Go the ... to Sleep.")
The writer knows of what he speaks and argues in "Supernatural Strategies" that "creating a rock 'n' roll group, like making a fancy meal, hasn't anything to do with superstitions. It's just a matter of applying scientific know-how in a systematic and controlled manner."
He then goes on to prove this, first by holding imaginary séances with dead rock stars, then by addressing, chapter by chapter, the building blocks of making a band, from naming it (or rather, "discovering" what your name will be) to photographing it (Where will the photo be set? Who will stand where? What kind of film stock?) to touring with it. He addresses drug use, sex, rehearsals and producers.
The séance conceit falls flat; Svenonius employs it as a clever way to infuse his theories into the ghost voices of Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Richard Berry (the composer of the classic rock song "Louie Louie") and Motown singer Mary Wells, among others. He uses the "conversations" with Wells and Buddy Holly, for example, to deliver theories on the connections between street gangs and rock bands in post-civil rights America.
When Svenonius tackles the makings of a rock band, he's spot-on. His academic, furrow-browed tone is brash, presumptuous and filled with a self-seriousness that's tough to gauge. Is this a joke, a conceit or a treatise? Mostly the latter, delivered with the confidence of a lead singer.
On naming a band, for example, he says one shouldn't commit "unless one is prepared psychically to be involved in the struggle for the very soul of culture and history." A noble goal, indeed.
There is an alternate means: Learn three chords. Start a band. No séances necessary.