SWEDEN

Ask the typical American what he or she knows about Sweden and you’ll probably be met with a confused, empty sort of look, a shrug of the shoulders, and a stammering response about Swedish meatballs; ask the typical music fan and you’ll probably hear something about ABBA and Ace of Base; ask me and I’ll start telling you bout the Swedish chef on The Muppet Show, who never seemed to get around to making the meatballs but sang better than all the members of ABBA and Ace of Base put together.

While our inability to attach any definitive imagery to our conceptions of Sweden may have something to do with garden-variety American cultural know-nothingism, it probably owes just as much to the Swedes’ oft-overlooked skill at cleverly obscuring their true nature. Everything about the Scandanavian country, from its understatedly simple flag design to its studious neutrality in both World Wars, has been carefully crafted to lull us into accepting the Swedes as a nation of cheery blue-eyed blondes with nothing better to do than sip aquavit and eat smorgasbord. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact of the matter is that Swedes are brilliantly cunning and ruthlessly ambitious. Not all of them are as obfuscatorily fiendish as IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, who grudgingly admitted in November of 1994 that he had “naively” belonged to a Nazi organization between 1945 and 1948 (and whose stores, to my knowledge, have never played ABBA or Ace of Base over their sound systems, although they do serve Swedish meatballs), but as a rule it is wise to treat Swedish claims and statements with a certain healthy skepticism. Official statistics on alcohol consumption, for example, rank Sweden among the lightest-drinking countries in the world, but this is characteristically deceptive — high alcohol taxes make drinking in Sweden prohibitively expensive, so most Swedes simply hop over the border to either Finland or Norway and get soused to their hearts’ considerable content. Similarly, the 1986 assssination of outwardly docile Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme was originally seen as an act of senseless terrorism but is now widely acknowledged to have been an ingenious and necessary sacrifice, carried out with Palme’s full cooperation and approval, in order to draw attention to the high quality of Sweden’s long-underrated firearms industry. Even the Swedish chef himself, long a staple on The Muppet Show, was not fully what he seemed: close inspection reveals that he was the only Muppet to have human hands rather than Muppet hands, an anomaly whose secret apparently went to the grave with honorary Swede Jim Henson in 1990.

Such inscrutability, coupled with a national history dotted with character-building ordeals like the Stockholm Bloodbath of 1520, the Thirty Years War of 1618-48, and the Linköping Cannibalism Outbreak of 1926, adds up to a juggernaut in the making. Americans would be wise to protect their collective flank and pay heed to the warning recently issued by the Swedish rock band Whale, whose 1994 “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe” single contained the following backwards-masked message: “We will bury you…bury you.”

From the liner notes of The Mountain Goats album Sweden.

LAURIE & LOU

I met Lou in Munich, not New York. It was 1992, and we were both playing in John Zorn’s Kristallnacht festival commemorating the Night of Broken Glass in 1938, which marked the beginning of the Holocaust. I remember looking at the rattled expressions on the customs officials’ faces as a constant stream of Zorn’s musicians came through customs all wearing bright red RHYTHM AND JEWS! T-shirts.

John wanted us all to meet one another and play with one another, as opposed to the usual “move-’em-in-and-out” festival mode. That was why Lou asked me to read something with his band. I did, and it was loud and intense and lots of fun. After the show, Lou said, “You did that exactly the way I do it!” Why he needed me to do what he could easily do was unclear, but this was definitely meant as a compliment.

I liked him right away, but I was surprised he didn’t have an English accent. For some reason I thought the Velvet Underground were British, and I had only a vague idea what they did. (I know, I know.) I was from a different world. And all the worlds in New York around then – the fashion world, the art world, the literary world, the rock world, the financial world – were pretty provincial. Somewhat disdainful. Not yet wired together.

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