In October of 1995, Sonic Youth played at Manhattan’s now defunct Academy in support of their Washing Machine album. In a review of the show for the New York Post, I likened the band to another big, beautiful fixture the average New Yorker ignores because it will, of course, always be there: the Empire State Building.
In September of 2001, two buildings near Sonic Youth’s studio (and my home) were destroyed, each of them larger than the Empire State Building. The title of Sonic Youth’s new album, Murray Street, makes the geography explicit, but the songs never do. The back cover shows two ONE WAY street signs, one of them bent up toward the sky.
In July of 2002, someone named Amy Phillips reviewed Murray Street for the Village Voice: www.villagevoice.com/issues/0228/phillips2.php. If you’re pressed for time, here’s the pull quote: “Sonic Youth, please break up.” Fans wrote in to discredit the piece and defend the band: www.villagevoice.com/issues/0229/sonic.php. What popped into my head after reading these letters was a headline from the October 3, 2001, issue of the Onion: “Rest of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection for New York.”
I’m not suggesting the letter writers were jumping on the bandwagon–on the contrary. The Onion bit springs to mind because I’ve been thinking about how soundly the faithful sleep until the sirens wake them up. I mean, how did Phillips get through? Why is New York letting the rest of the world write her history? Why do we think Sonic Youth will always be here? What is theory without praxis?
To paraphrase John Lennon, if you wanted another word for indie rock, you could just say Sonic Youth. The square biz economics of Touch and Go may be indie rock’s legacy (wouldn’t it be nice if Dave Eggers gave them credit for the idea of 50/50 profit splits?) but tuning your guitar all funny is the biggest (though not only) textual difference between classic-rock practitioners like the Replacements and second-wave geniuses like Sleater-Kinney, groups classed together in many taxonomies. (“They’re white, they record for indie labels–you know, indie rock.”)
If you were facing down pop aesthetics in the 80s, you probably looked pretty small standing next to hip-hop. Sonic Youth kept whitey on the map by making radically detuned guitars part of pop. Yes, it might have been Glenn Branca who thought it up, maybe it was Rhys Chatham–I’d even credit La Monte Young or Stravinsky if someone played me the right record. Blind Willie McTell detuned in the late 20s, and metal bands were dropping the E string down to D when Sonic Youth were still in Sonic Huggies. But the majority of rockers wouldn’t retune more than a string or two before Sonic Youth. Now many do. The amateur sociologist in me says one event predicted the other.
Why retune the whole darn guitar? (The Beatles didn’t do that. Did they?) Try this: Tune a few strings to one note and the remaining strings to another note (forget the niceties of Western intonation while you’re at it). Hit the guitar. Big, beautiful stuff happens. Resonances bloom and overtones spread like gas. (Nice gas. Piña colada-flavored laughing gas. Not bad gas.) Bob Christgau’s line about the electric guitar “bestow[ing] on a single, barely trained player the aural power of a symphony orchestra,” becomes suddenly, precisely descriptive, but it’s a good bet Sonic Youth weren’t chasing a classical kick when they made it true. Pawnshop guitars porcupined with screwdrivers are an art school move straight out of the Situationist Repurposing Handbook and the search for accidental beauty is traceable directly to avant-guardians like John Cage. (Sonic Youth made this link to the institutionalized avant-garde explicit with their covers of composers like Cage and Yoko Ono on 2000’s Goodbye 20th Century.)
Whatever the original plan, they ended up smuggling a big European classical gun into rock: the narcotic boof of massed, distressed harmonics. The double genius in this move was that the aesthetics were indebted to, and politically improved by, the guitar’s built-in popular mechanics: any clown can buy two Japanese Stratocaster copies, tune one to D-flat and the other to C, plug them in, hit all the strings, and get a bucket of notes. The effect of hugeness is familiar, but the harmonies aren’t. Instead of approximating the minor/major string section anybody with a budget can hire, the detuned guitar excels at producing serrated blue notes and fizzy microtones. If you want to get pointy-headed about it, you could say SY grafted the fragile humanity of Ornette Coleman’s warbling harmolodics (many players, many keys, one song) onto rock’s hard, immediate kicks. No? If you’re a text person, you could say SY made the guitars into singers and the singers into critics. No? Doesn’t matter–anyone with ears could tell SY had fucked with rock music and it would not unfuck itself.
“And punk,” many cried, “punk changed, too!” But when I saw the band name in 1983, punk and Sonic Youth were linked by nothing more than a bad joke. My friend Garret and I were leaving his loft on Stanton and Bowery when we saw a Sonic Youth flyer pasted up next to his building. A high school junior in thrall to NY HC, I got a buzz. Were they like Reagan Youth?
“Cool–have you heard them?” I asked.
“They suck. It’s an art thing. My mother saw them.”
Now a Youth champion, in ’83 Christgau reviewed their album Confusion Is Sex and called them “impotent bohos.” I didn’t read his review at the time. Nobody I knew would have–none of my older friends knew SY and since they were snapping on the dominant religion, we weren’t about to chase them down. I left them behind with the flyer on the wall.
Until 1985, when I “borrowed” their 1982 debut EP from the Brown University radio station. I liked drummer Richard Edson, then a member of NY funk band Konk, and dug the blue-and-white copy shop graphics ’cause they reminded me of the Liquid Liquid EPs on 99 Records. Hard to believe now that these points would triangulate Sonic Youth but hey, this was NYC 1982. Their first beat was a gentle minimalist funk and the guitars minded their manners even when the tunings rose up. It’s a sweet record and about as punk as a pumpkin. I took home their other records–Confusion, Bad Moon Rising–and didn’t return them.
It still hadn’t occurred to me that they were punks. They rarely played fast and some songs lasted, like, forever. The hectic parts of Confusion reminded me of bands in the Brown/RISD orbit like Shithaus (with Jon Spencer and Tod Ashley) and the rest sounded like the stuff you hear in art galleries. Admittedly, the graphics aped punk rock flyers and covering the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” was already a punk-rock bar mitzvah, but SY sounded, from day one, like a sui generis blend of hippie, avant-crap, psych, and, sure, punk, because that’s where you get the screaming, right? And they were kinda punk to make fun of punk names, right?
SY were part of a community of bands and labels: Swans, Live Skull, Big Black, Minutemen, Homestead, SST. My friends and I called the crew “groovy ghoulies” because their fans wore black muumuus but when SY reenacted the Manson murders in an early video, the term proved apt. These bands passed through the Living Room in Providence and documented what passed for a collective ideology in Forced Exposure, irregular home to writing by Thurston Moore and Steve Albini. I got a pleasant shock from founding editor Byron Coley’s barking abbreviations, and Thurston’s tour diaries made me think Sonic Youth were like the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night except for the being clean part.
Everyone in the magazine kept mentioning punk, which had long ago become less a genre and more a philosophy. Brown University circa 1986 was ground zero for what would become political correctness, but I couldn’t keep my head out of this magazine written by either misogynist creeps or creeps trying to epater le Reagan bourgeois–probably the latter, I tried to believe in an effort to reduce cognitive dissonance. Worrying about all the puffy boy rhetoric forced me to confront what I did and didn’t like about the whole loud rock music thing anyway. In a moment of “moral” outrage, I threw my entire stack of FE into the trash. Hard to believe that Thurston Moore, Fem Priest and riot uncle to the grrls, was hanging with dick wavers but hey, this was 1986 New England.
So I came home to meet them. Summer was icumen in, EVOL had been out for a month and, having lost my virginity, I couldn’t think of any better way to change my life.
Date: Tuesday, June 17, 1986
City: New York City, New York, USA
Thurston came out, planted a boom box onstage, and hit play. Out came Madonna’s “Into the Groove,” and maybe I was just fooling myself, but I thought he understood what many of us disco bunnies understood, that this woman was a serious mainline thrill, an artist in control of the package she was riding. Playing Madonna at CBGB’s without making any funny faces was a great way to put paid to the sectarian impulses that make arty types such a drag. Sonic Youth felt connected to the culture at large, not enemies of pop music but folks who rode the same subways I did. Punks not punks, except that endorsing Madonna in 1986 was as punk as it got.
The only song I can remember qua song is “Shadow of a Doubt,” still Kim Gordon’s strongest moment. I’d never seen a woman whisper in the middle of a loud rock band. Her restraint felt almost macho, like command coming after chaos, except she was down with chaos, too. The crowd rose and fell as one as the music oscillated between large and largest. It was my first full rock catharsis. Like a virgin, I was.
In June of 1987, Sonic Youth released Sister, which imprinted on me so heavily (was it the acid or the actual Rhode Island sunshine?) that 4.5 days out of 7 I still think it’s the greatest album ever recorded. I left college without a degree, interned at Sonic Youth’s new home, Blast First, got an advance cassette of Daydream Nation and found out acid was unnecessary, met the band once but only shook Lee Ranaldo’s hand. When my girlfriend left me for a woman, she left behind Madonna but took Sonic Youth. The band signed to Geffen and the 80s were over.
The 90s began with the two greatest formal innovators of the 80s cohabiting: Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Kim duetting on “Kool Thing,” from SY’s 1990 major-label debut, Goo. Would something like this happen now–maybe Boots from the Coup showing up on a Sleater-Kinney album? Sure, and it might even be more likely now, but it wouldn’t be the shocking promise of a freedom vibe right around the corner, a promise only the faithful would believe. But my vision was skewed at this point–I thought the band was inches shy of political power. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my overdeveloped sense of their importance. Kurt Cobain liked the sound of Geffen as paymaster because, hey, they signed Sonic Youth, and then Beck thought the same thing, and even if you didn’t care about such corporate boogie, Bikini Kill wrote a song called “Thurston Hearts the Who” and wait, having one name, that’s just like Madonna, right? And, wait, staying signed to a major while never going gold (dropping way below 100,000 for the last three, actually)–that’s punk, right?
But the reason I wrote this? To assert the dully obvious fact of SY’s cultural importance? To beat back the young barbarians? To tell you I took acid? Nope. I wrote this because I went to see Insomnia by myself this summer in suburban Connecticut. When I left the theater, fearing the world might swallow me whole, I put on Murray Street and listened to it all the way home, driving the pitch-black roads with the windows open, volume to 11. It didn’t feel much different than hearing Sister on acid or Daydream Nation on New York. At this late date it must be clear that Sonic Youth are on to something.
Their last three albums have little connection to Sister’s serial gallop or Daydream Nation’s anxious torque. Since Washing Machine the band has opted to trade the rock ‘n’ roll locomotion they were only borrowing anyway for high-resolution focus on guitars and poetry. 1998’s A Thousand Leaves is one long song that begins again instantly in memory the moment it stops. 2000’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers illustrates its title by finding poems finger-traced in the wet concrete of a downtown being paved over by the Republic of Bananas. That is, at least, what the records sound like. But the songs tell other stories, including this one: “We scorched the fields, we changed your phone number and we hit them all with love. When it was over, everything seemed calm. We got what they all wanted. We were in charge.”
Resolution usually kills artists the way garlic kills vampires. Restlessness, refusal, and rambling are the three Rs of bohemia, and their absence usually signals the move from downtown sublet to uptown ownership. But as the records kept coming, Sonic Youth kept accepting their own triumph, a move more remarkable than their iteration #895 of Young Artists on Fire–a good but common script. A Thousand Leaves, NYC Ghosts & Flowers, and now Murray Street are the Youth at home, but not necessarily grown up. (If rock is almost always an escape from some definition of home–how does this work? Does it prove they were always an art band, and having your home studio is art’s best friend?) The comforts of home bring down the body heat but when this band rocks at less than full power, their case gets stronger. With the curtain of volume retracted, objects become sharper.
NYC Ghosts & Flowers was the first part of an intended trilogy about New York, and Murray Street is part II. Murray Street is also their first self-summary and the easiest album to repeat since Daydream Nation. Thurston’s porch funk, Lee’s lullabies, Kim’s sprechstimme, Steve Shelley’s monorail–it’s all here, lit for maximum effect. Recent addition Jim O’Rourke has blended in so effectively I can’t honestly say it sounds like there’s a new bass player in the band, but I’m guessing the clarity of the recording and the vivid stereo placement can be traced back to him.
These two men and one woman are catchier singers than the rep suggests. It’s not really a shock. Icons and machers don’t get the gig by being indistinct, so if someone in your zone starts hating on the voices, it’s either ideology or tin ears. The album starts with three beautiful Thurston pop songs and then hits “Karen Revisited,” which begins as Lee’s prettiest tune since “Mote” and finishes as the band’s best noise soak since “The Diamond Sea.” I like the later tracks–Kim in her best form since I don’t know when and the Borbetomagus horns making Thurston’s free-jazz stewardship explicit–but I keep returning to the literal center of the album, this huge black hole in “Karen,” impossible to contain in memory but undeniably what you thought it was when it comes around again. What other band could drop a silky ABAB, black it out with a big Magic Marker, and dissolve any protest you might mount on behalf of those lovely verses with nothing more than a sound?
When you answer that question, you can tell them to break up yourself. i
Sasha Frere-Jones is a fellow of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University.