Indie rocker Conan Neutron has colorful ways of describing George W. Bush’s former Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove. He offered a few examples over beers at the Uptown Nightclub: “Master of lies and manipulation.” “A man with blood on his hands.” “Shameless tactician.” “Lying salesman.” “Gandalf behind the scenes.” “Unconscionable, soulless asshole.” That’s only the beginning. Neutron also faults Rove for “all these wars that we’re still embroiled in, our economy being screwed, and gay marriage being used as a wedge issue.” Then there’s that “porcine face,” which, according to Neutron, resists even the softest lighting or the finest airbrushing techniques.
“Did I say ‘cocksucker?'” he added, his voice rising to a crescendo. Mere mention of the name “Karl Rove” is enough to get his blood boiling, and spur another fusillade of insults.
Neutron’s well-entrenched animus stems from eight years of watching Rove serve as “Bush’s brain,” by issuing terror warnings and launching warrantless wiretaps, among other offenses. Like many of Rove’s detractors, Neutron blames the erstwhile Chief of Staff for engineering our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, what really got Neutron was Rove’s recent comeback attempt, in the form of a new, self-aggrandizing autobiography. The title was the real clincher, Neutron said: “Courage and Consequence? Are you kidding me?”
Even as the ink dries on the pages, Neutron is planning his own project to coincide with Rove’s March 9 book release. Originally, he wanted to create a one-off band that would perform songs about Karl Rove, and show “what the book should actually be about.” The idea was to create a “Google bomb,” like the one that Richard Kim and Betsy Reed created with their Sarah Palin parody, Going Rouge. When Neutron broached the subject with friends, their response was so overwhelming that he decided to take the idea one step further. He devised an entire compilation of songs that go against the Rovian grain. He named the album Karl Rove: Courage and Consequence, in the hope that it would steal hits on Google and perhaps even trick right-wing book-buyers into purchasing the wrong product. Barring a lawsuit for copyright infringement, Neutron says his main goal is to mess with the retired politician “in some small way” — even if it only amounts to a few less book sales, or a slightly lower Google ranking.
To Neutron, Rove’s memoir and book tour is the equivalent of playing a show at the Hemlock Tavern: “You pump the show. You set it up. There’s a solid routine to it that basically includes a lot of people kissing your ass.” Thus, he continued, even a beleaguered politician can find ways to steer clear of critics. There’s a real danger that Rove could successfully reframe history, or at least capitalize on a legacy of bloodshed and domestic surveillance. It’s enough to get an activist rock musician hot under the collar. “He needs to be answered, and I don’t see that happening from anyone else,” said Neutron. “So I’ve elected myself curator of that.”
In fairness, he has all the right job qualifications. Thirty-one-year-old Neutron grew up in Modesto, where he was the small-town misfit with blue hair, guitar skills, and erudite parents — they named him for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (He added the Neutron part in 1996 and won’t reveal his real surname.) At age seventeen he moved up to the Bay Area, took a job in IT, and started the first in a series of offbeat rock bands, called Replicator. As frontman and lead guitarist, Neutron gave the band its distinctive nerdy stamp, writing songs with odd meters and Philip K. Dick references. Replicator enjoyed an eight-year tenure in the local club scene, and paved the way for Neutron’s second band, Mount Vicious (which broke up in August). In 2004 Neutron helmed Bands Against Bush, a precursor to the Rove project with its own, similarly seditious compilation. Neutron said that Bands Against Bush landed him on a federal watch-list. He was sure of it, he said, because in 2005 all his parking tickets went immediately to collections, and he received jury duty notices about every six weeks. He couldn’t pass through an airport security checkpoint without getting pulled out of line.
To complete Courage and Consequence in time for Rove’s book tour meant Neutron had to follow a pretty aggressive timeline. He hatched the plan on November 29, which allowed him four months to corral the bands, record the songs, mix the album, and set the marketing campaign in motion. Neutron also formed a new band, called Victory and Associates. Thus, he got to contribute an anti-Rove ditty of his own, entitled “Lies and the Lying Liars That Sell Them” (a spinoff of Senator Al Franken’s new book). Victory and Associates will perform its first show on March 18 at the Hemlock, several weeks after Courage and Consequence hits the streets.
It seemed improbable: a protest album with no financial backing, no promotional machine, and a deadline that brought everything down to the wire. But Neutron saw himself as a fearless David ready to fight Rove at all costs, even if it meant selling plasma to press up a thousand copies of the LP. Even he was surprised by the sudden onslaught of support. Thirteen bands signed on, ranging from local favorites (Heavenly States, Poster Children), to relative unknowns (Lambs of Abortion, We’re Gonna Fight the Eskimos Next). Some came so late in the game that Neutron had to request a prerecorded, premixed track. Even more shocking was the response from fans, who made pledges on Neutron’s web site to help fund the album. Neutron responded, in typical fund-drive fashion, with a tiered gift system. Five dollars guarantees a digital download, twenty dollars gets a digital download and copy of the vinyl LP. The sky’s the limit, he said. “Donate a thousand dollars and you get to write something in the liner notes, a kiss on the forehead, dinner with me — I don’t know.” As of last week, the album was already 34 percent funded by outsider donations, enough to give Neutron a little courage and consequence of his own. Or as he put it, “It takes a village to fuck an asshole.”