The professor, the prankster, and the poet: It might be too pat of a way to classify Greg Graffin, Ian Svenonius, and Richard Hell, respectively, three legendary punk singers who happen to have new non-fiction books on the shelves. But the shoes fit. Population Wars: A New Perspective On Competition And Coexistence by Graffin, the frontman of the politically charged hardcore band Bad Religion, came out in September; Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001-2014 by Hell, the iconic former member of Television and Richard Hell And The Voidoids, came out in October; and Censorship Now!!, a collection of essays by the erstwhile mouthpiece of the pioneering post-hardcore band The Nation Of Ulysses (and who now plies slyly subversive garage rock in Chain And The Gang), came out last week. These are not memoirs like Patti Smith’s new M Train or Hell’s own I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp), but non-fiction books on external subjects ranging from sociology to pornography to politics.
Graffin, Svenonius, and Hell are not debut authors, but even if these were their first books, they’d be bringing extensive résumés as wordsmiths. Each has written scores of prose as the lyricists of their bands—lyrics that still resonate, from Bad Religion’s antiauthoritarian treatise “No Control” to The Voidoids’ harrowingly sexual “Love Comes In Spurts” to The Nation Of Ulysses’ blistering manifesto “Spectra Sonic Sound.” The question, though, is whether those punk credentials are enough to carry over into bigger issues, at greater length, in a far less explosive medium—that is, if the pen is at least as mighty as the microphone.
At first glance, Graffin’s book Population Wars reads as much like a textbook as his previous non-fiction effort, 2010’s Anarchy Evolution (co-written with Steve Olson). But that perception is deceiving. Graffin is a professor, with a Ph.D. in zoology and a master’s in geology, and he definitely doesn’t downplay his bona fides in the pages of Popular Wars. From challenging America’s unexamined beliefs about the myth of self-sufficiency to taking on the way we overuse war as a metaphor, Graffin lashes out as powerfully as he’d done in song since Bad Religion’s early days in the ’80s.
Where the book truly shines, though, is in Graffin’s ability to slice through the jargon and verbosity—two things he also uses in Bad Religion lyrics—with personal anecdotes and an intimate voice. When he veers from a lecture on population control to a Thoreau-esque account of the trees and insects he sees around his own home in New York, he anchors the book’s more abstract concepts. It’s genuinely exhilarating to see his ideas, and his compassion, unrestrained by three-minute punk songs. “We can either accept the truth that the human population has already mushroomed to the point of affecting nearly all other species on the planet,” he writes, “or we hide from it and pretend that we are an isolated population living a distinct and parallel existence with no need to care about others.” Graffin makes no bones about which side he’s on—and he has both the intensity and the articulation to back it up.
Where Graffin is earnest and straightforward in his social critique, Ian Svenonius is anything but. As evidenced by the title of Censorship Now!!, there’s a strong streak of satire and sarcasm that runs through Svenonius’ writing, which has been obvious since the lengthy, confounding liner notes of The Nation Of Ulysses’ first album, 1991’s 13-Point Program To Destroy America. But it’s not that easy to write off Svenonius’ as a Swiftian prankster or even a plain old troll, despite his trumpeting of Fidel Castro or the wholesale contrarianism of his 2006 essay collection, The Psychic Soviet. The essays in Censorship Now!! are equally packed with modest proposals and mock-revolutionary rhetoric, but there are grains of truth in pieces like “The Historic Role Of Sugar In Empire Building” and “Heathers Revisited: The Nerd’s Fight For Niceness”—they’re just buried somewhere between tongue and cheek.
“When TV, radio, press, and Internet news are clogged with financial manipulation, reaction, and bile, can we believe in freedom in any of these forms?” Svenonius asks in the book’s titular essay. “No. We must create moral restrictions on what is allowed. Censor the press. Censor free speech. Censorship now.” It’s a downright Stalinist sentiment, but the underlying notion makes perverse, even paradoxical sense: Expression might be the greatest enemy of expression, especially in a brave new world where trivia inundates us and everyone has something to say. It all ties back to punk, once a rebellious force for the democratization of music, and now just another commodity. Or as Svenonius sardonically puts it, “For many poor souls, there is no alternative to the alternative.” Without the volume of a raucous band to back him up, however, his proclamations sometimes feel sterile. It’s telling that the title of Censorship Now!! ends with two exclamation marks; it’s the closest Svenonius can get in text to the ferocious emphasis of his music.
That leaves the poet. Richard Hell’s contribution to punk rock is unassailable; as founding member of Television, The Heartbreakers, and Richard Hell And The Voidoids, he not influenced a generation of punks to make noise but helped inject a heightened lyrical sensibility into a genre of music that was immediately dismissed as having all the literary value of a puke bucket. If only Massive Pissed Love kept that fire alive. It’s punk only the sense that it’s cranky; beyond that, Hell’s collection of essays from tedious, at times embarrassingly crotchety ruminations on everything from film to literature to politics, with the through-line being, unavoidably, himself.
At one point in his essay “The V.U. v. The Stones,” he observes that when he saw the phrase “the velvet underground and the rolling stones” (lowercase his) on his computer screen while writing the very essay in which his observation appears, “it was a mental kick, like true poetry, maybe as high an instance of it as rock and roll can achieve.” In other words: Hell has a pretty low bar for poetry these days—not to mention a self-absorbed idea of what makes a decent essay. Elsewhere in the same piece, he says he doesn’t find Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, or Hell’s own CBGB contemporary Joey Ramone interesting as performers, saying he prefers “the music of monstrously self-involved front men.” Later in the book, in an essay that’s entirely a navel-gazing examination of the reviews of his memoir I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, he boasts, “I know there are ‘better’ artists than me, but I think what I have to say is important.” Sadly, Hell’s own importance is almost entirely what Hell finds so important to convey in Massive Pissed Love.
Three punk singers of three different generations have delivered three non-fiction books of uneven quality. Nothing surprising there. Taken together, though, they bring up an unsettling point: As much as punk—at least in the underground heyday that Hell, Graffin, and Svenonius came up in—was a reaction against the shallowness and empty worship of celebrity, these three books grapple with the same problem that any celebrity-penned tome does. If these writers didn’t already have notoriety outside the realm of letters, would their writing have merited publication of these books in the first place? And even if they had, is there any way to read them without being colored by who they are, where they come from, and what they’ve sung?
Maybe it’s a lot to ask for Hell’s essays to live up to his groundbreaking, still-vital music (although he certainly has no qualms about making that implication). Or for Graffin’s impassion hardcore polemic to sit as convincingly on the page. Or for Svenonius’ yelping, sweat-soaked stage persona to translate effectively into something far quieter. In some cases, they succeed. But for punk singers-turned-writers, whose shrieked, screamed, and shouted words have blasted open minds and inspired so many, it’s a bigger disappointment when they don’t.