July 15, Fireside Bowl
By Daniel Sinker
"I know you've seen it all before, but tonight we're gonna breathe some life back into that old corpse," Ian Svenonious promises the flock gathered at the Fireside Bowl on an exceptionally warm Tuesday night to hear his band, the Make-Up, preach their Gospel Yeh-Yeh. He adds, as he will more than 50 times tonight, "Lemme hear you say yeah!" The crowd, as it will every time he asks, booms back, "YEAH!"
Yeah, we have seen it all before--the white-boy soul dressed out with just enough distortion to make it seem relevant, the James Brown tiptoe posturing, the organ pumping, the pegged black pants, and yes, even the gravity-defying do Svenonious is sporting up there onstage. But we like it, and we like Svenonious--one of a handful of visionaries, along with Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna and Outpunk fanzine's Matt Wobensmith, to make a real musical and philosophical mark on punk rock in the 90s.
Svenonious's first band, Nation of Ulysses, emerged at the start of the decade into a scene that was caught up in tough-guy hardcore posturing and a dry political discourse that had grown outright stale over the last decade. It seemed to come out of nowhere--even in the context of the relatively progressive underground in Washington, D.C., at the time. Most bands toss off a few seven-inches before really finding their sound, cementing their ideology. But Svenonious went right for the jugular from Nation of Ulysses's first release. Not content just to put out a record, he had to create what one of the song titles dubbed "The Sound of Young America." "I'm an atom bomb," he sang, and the music--a strangely ordered cacophony of guitar feedback, driving drums, and an apocalyptic trumpet bleating in the distance--hit like one.
Around this sound Svenonious built a whole imaginary revolutionary movement whose complete history was documented on record sleeves and in liner notes, as well as the zine and pamphlet series Ulysses Speaks! Included with the band's very first release was "The Grand Scheme for the Fate of Things Great and Small," a five-point program to live by that included a directive to "dress well, as clothing and fashion are the only things that we, the kids, being utterly disenfranchised, have any control over" and the promise of "violent destruction of the new urban bourgeoisie and the playgrounds and monuments which spring up all over this city and country, marring the landscape unforgivably, while forcing rents up and the dispossessed out."
It was--except the part about dressing cool--all bullshit, of course, but it was good bullshit, and the conviction with which Svenonious sold it to the scene made it great: like a pro wrestler, he'd never admit it wasn't real. For a punk scene that had grown deadly earnest in recent years, it was an intoxicating idea--an army of sharp-dressed young rebels taking on the "ill-informed nostalgics who would make a mockery of our own age." Svenonious's manifesto-babble offered punks willing to deconstruct his messages the option to practice leftist politics even while poking fun at them. In short, for a little while Nation of Ulysses made politics sexy again.
But within a few years, as Nation of Ulysses gained national recognition, the "sound of young America" became just another sound, and bands with elaborately invented histories and personalities were cropping up faster than you could say "smash the museums." Svenonious knew the jig was up, so in 1993 he and two other Nation members, guitarist James Canty and bassist Steve Gamboa (who switched to drums), formed a band called the Cupid Car Club for one purpose only: to die.
From the liner notes of their sole release, the "Join Our Club" seven-inch (whose cover depicted the suicides of all four band members): "[Svenonious] claimed 'Dig a grave big enough to dump the wretched legacy of a life squandered on the idiotic principles of the living world and climb into the car club coffin.' Svenonious advocated young, romantic suicide marketed as a sort of new teen craze, for the purpose of 'empowerment' and claimed his 'car club ephemeral...eternally.' We start from the finish line. Young Gravediggers, 'join our club.'" It was classic Svenonious, letting us share but never quite understand the joke. And with that, the Nation folded its flag forever.
Like Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up--formed three years later by Svenonious, Gamboa, Canty, and ex-Frumpies guitarist Michelle Mae, who plays bass--is an experience as much as it is a band. Its Gospel Yeh-Yeh is vaguely outlined in the liner notes of its debut full-length, Destination: Love Live! at Cold Rice. A "liberation theology" with a decidedly un-Christian emphasis on earthly delights, it urges worshipers to "get theirs" and "off the pigs--in all their forms." The rest of its tenets must be divined from the Make-Up's live shows, and judging from the Fireside show, one of them must be "the higher the hair, the closer to God."
Unlike Nation of Ulysses, however, the Make-Up is wholly Svenonious's band. In the former, each member had a role to play in making the groundbreaking music (actually referred to in liner notes as "soul music"); in the latter, the musical territory is already well trod. At its best, it's an homage to Stax-era soul; at its worst, it's a blatant and badly executed rip-off, reducing soul to a couple key phrases like "baby" and "lemme hear you say yeah." Lacking both the technical prowess and creativity of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the "fuck history, let's rock" sensibility of the Delta 72 (for whom ex-Cupid Car Clubber Kim Thompson briefly played bass), the Make-Up would already be a brief footnote in the history of a small subgenre of retro postpunk if it were not for one exceptionally large head of hair and the brain that resides beneath it.
Take the Fireside show: as the band (with Canty now doubling on organ) wheezes away, trying its best to sound like hornless backup for an I'm Still in Love With You-era Al Green, all eyes are on Svenonious. He, on the other hand, is in a world of his own, testifying in a raspy falsetto that's both off-putting and oddly seductive. The set, made up of almost entirely new material (and this after three albums' worth of songs in less than two years), seems almost improvised, with references to the ungodly temperature in the venue freestyled right into the lyrics.
Previous Make-Up shows have been carefully constructed to feel like smarmy tent revivals, but tonight Svenonious appears to be truly possessed by a spirit not his own--several, actually. At points he's an apocalyptic cult leader, insisting that "now it's time for a new uniform, baby, because we have to prepare for the next war," and a lecherous preacher more interested in what's in your pants than what's in your heart, demanding, "Get on your knees, baby." Neither of these is too far out of character, but the message feels a little more urgent than usual. In the weirdest move, Svenonious also takes on the identity of an escaped slave, opening the set with the Negro spiritual "Wade in the Water (To Your Knees)" and making reference to "picking okra under the midday sun." At least one member of the audience storms out, visibly angry at this direct appropriation of African-American history, and I can't say I blame him.
Both Nation of Ulysses and the Make-Up are about identity, but if Nation used irony to depants superserious 80s punk, the Make-Up, as the name implies, layers it on for a much less noble reason. For a final number, the band chooses the tune "Make-Up Is Lies," in which Svenonious sings, "Make-up is another word for disguise"--and the performance as a whole couldn't have driven the point home harder. Of course the Make-Up is a lie: we wouldn't expect less from Svenonious. But where the lies of Nation of Ulysses gave new hope to a dying scene, the Make-Up offers only escape.
Lemme hear you say yeah.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Marty Perez.