The cover of Serj Tankian's new memoir, Down with the System

Book Review: Heavy Metal Prophet Serj Tankian Rocks It out in New Book


The LORD your God shall raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers-it is to him you shall listen.

-Deuteronomy 18:15


“(SOAD was as) unlikely a chart-topper as had ever existed in modern music history: a band of Armenian-Americans playing a practically unclassifiable clash of wildly aggressive metal riffs, unconventional tempo-twisting rhythms, and Armenian folk melodies, with me alternately growling, screaming, and crooning lyrics that could pivot from avant-garde silliness to raging socio-political rants in the space of a single line…it’s not easy listening.” (ST, Down with the System)

Slim and goateed with a soft-spoken tone of voice and bearing a message of peace, in person Serj Tankian appears both devilish and Christ-like. His recent book, Down with the System, confirms the prophetic elements that underscore many of his lyrics as the lead singer and songwriter of System of a Down.

Though old timers may find some of his songs akin to speaking in tongues, his overarching message is one of love and mutual understanding. Subtitled A memoir (of sorts), the current account starts off relating his childhood in Beirut through the trauma of the Lebanese Civil War that brought his family to Los Angeles in the late 1970s.

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Tankian writes touchingly of trying to assimilate into American culture and the love he felt for his father — a footwear designer of talent who ended up consumed by a legal battle with a former business partner. Tankian spent countless hours as a teenager translating court documents for him when he might otherwise have been enjoying college. Tankian also started a successful software business before devoting himself full-time to music. These details paint a fascinating, fully human and three-dimensional portrait of an artist that many would only otherwise know through his music.

Tankian deftly weaves in the story of System of a Down, the band, so that fans of SOAD will also be satisfied by book’s end. There are intriguing and juicy details about fellow band members Daron Malakian and Shavo Odadjian (guitar and bass guitar), John Dolmayan and Ontronik Khatchaturian (acoustic drums). Though Tankian sometimes clashed with Dolmayan and Malakian, he goes to pains with every incident described to tell the other band member’s side of the story as he knows it. Although I always enjoyed and supported SOAD, I was never a groupie, so I cannot evaluate how accurate Tankian’s narratives are, but the fact that he goes out of his way to show two sides to every tale, is revealing of his personality.

Tankian and fellow band members follow in a long tradition of rock prophets that includes Jim Morrison of the Doors, down through Leonard Cohen and Morrissey of the Smiths — though Tankian’s actual message surprisingly enough may come closer to ’60s folk singers such as Peter Seger and Peter, Paul and Mary.

In albums such as “Toxicity” and “Mezmerize” and songs such as Chop Suey, P.L.U.C.K. and Holy Mountains, SOAD attacks everything from genocide denial to the American military industrial complex and general human violence and toxic behavior, all with uncommon directness and bravery.

At a recent book signing at Brooklyn’s Powerhouse Books, Tankian engaged in conversation with comedian Eric Boghossian. After discussing Down with the System, Tankian chided Boghossian: “I want to talk about Armenia now.” Boghossian responded: “Yeah?” Tankian countered: “Yes, absolutely.” For the mostly lay audience, the ensuing half hour provided a relaxed introduction to Hayastan’s ancient history down through the Genocide and the recent wars over Artsakh.

Pride in his culture overlays most of the discussion in the book. The fact that Tankian and Odadjian both attended the Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School and are fluent Armenian speakers, is also a rousing endorsement of Armenian education.

On the topic of Armenian Genocide recognition, Tankian writes: “There are always people who naively say we should focus more on the present and the future than the past. However, as I learned more about not just the history of the Armenian Genocide but also the history of war throughout human civilization, a new realization dawned on me: if we as humans do not acknowledge and account for our shared history, we will be doomed to repeat it ad nauseum. And that’s why recognition of the Armenian Genocide is so essential.”

Tankian also gives readers a short background and overview of the filming of Carla Garabedian’s 2007 documentary, “Screamers,” which helped to push the Genocide recognition agenda forward.

For those who are expecting a strictly rock historical accounting of the band, Down with The System may disappoint at first, but it is in fact that rarest of things: a book about a metal band that goes beyond the merely musical to reveal a musician’s inner soul. The book is also a plebiscite for peace and understanding at all levels and a call to arms for Americans, Armenians and Armenian-Americans equally.

Tankian makes it clear that we are all jointly responsible for the catastrophes that befall humans globally. If we do not speak out on issues ranging from genocide to global warning to America’s constant recourse to proxy wars across the globe, or on issues of poverty at home, then we encourage these ills to continue unabated.

Along with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, Tankian founded Axis of Justice, an organization which fights against inequality on all levels, from the macro to the micro, the global to the local.

Here Tankian discusses how he helped to raise awareness about the problem of homelessness in America: “In Santa Monica, the city council had passed a law making it illegal to distribute food to the homeless. We brought a group there to give out box lunches to homeless people, in defiance of the law, and invited the press out to chronicle it. Later on, when the grocery workers union went on strike in Los Angeles, we organized a benefit concert for them.”

Tankian also doles out valuable advice to creative souls of all types: follow your dream but be honest and realistic as well. On the issue of how to deal with the often-complicated process of artistic creation and representation, Tankian avers: “The importance of having the guts to say ‘yes’ to things that turn you on is matched only by the impact of learning how to say ‘no’ to the things that don’t. A lot of this comes from an artist’s own vulnerabilities and not wanting to hear ‘no’ for an answer…You are surrounded by people whose job it is to flatter you and treat you like a delicate genius. The ‘yes-men’ see to it as their mission to make sure you never have to endure an uncomfortable situation or an awkward moment.”

Taken to heart, this perfectly reasonable but often unheeded advice could save many a heartache and artistic disappointment. So down with the system, indeed: down with war, hypocrisy and inequality. Everyone should run out and read this engaging straightforward book, written in a breezy and appealing style. But caveat lector: Tankian shoots from the hip and his gun is loaded.

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