Sonic Youth

at the Riviera, May 16

By Monica Kendrick

Every one of the professional fans at South by Southwest was looking for those proverbial mindblowing unknowns playing in the bathroom of some barbecue joint. I kept my ears open too, knowing I’d look like an idiot if I told the truth: the band that surprised me the most, that really blew me away down there, was this band from New York, three men and a woman. They’re called Sonic Youth. Have you heard of them? It wasn’t that Sonic Youth were playing under anything other than rock-star conditions, with a huge crowd around the block baking in the sun, hoping to get into the small club the band had blessed with their presence. It wasn’t that I haven’t seen them a dozen or so times in the last dozen or so years. It wasn’t even that I didn’t remember that live they’re either at least the second- or third-greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world or they suck with hydraulic force. But on the great nights, it’s not hard for even a longtime listener to become convinced that she’s witnessing the hottest new thing under the sun.

This is all the more impressive when you consider Sonic Youth’s unassailable stature in the, ahem, indie-rock community. Their simple endurance is celebrated by girls who hold up Kim Gordon as the paragon of cool and would love to have 15 years and counting of collaborative marriage like she has had with Thurston Moore; by collectors of avant-garde rarities who credit Moore and his business partner Byron Coley with introducing hundreds to unappreciated treasures (and blame them for singlehandedly driving up prices on used vinyl); by fellow musicians who wish they had the time and energy to stick their fingers into every pie; by everyone who ponders how a band that’s never had a gold album has maintained such sterling relations with Geffen; by critics who find it remarkable that the concept of a “new Sonic Youth album” actually means something. Love them or hate them, Sonic Youth seem to have been born under a lucky star.

But it’s not luck that got them here: it’s obsession. Gordon, Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley are completely in love with sound, forsaking all others, till death do them part. Not with songs per se, not even with rock ‘n’ roll necessarily, but with sound in all its myriad forms and all the uses to which it can be put–and that’s a topic too big to master in four lifetimes. The three Musical Perspectives EPs the band recently released independently were the first new product under the Sonic Youth name in two years; the rest of that time the four members were immersing themselves in side projects galore: running their own record labels; recording solo albums; making noise with friends in other bands; writing poetry, Moroccan travelogues, and earnest homages to their heroes; and displaying at the very least an admirable restlessness at an age (Gordon’s the oldest at 45) and status where plenty of rockers start cranking out best-ofs and live retrospectives.

When, in his unblushing tribute to free-improv guitarist Rudolph Grey in the current issue of the Wire, Moore confesses that he feels like an intrusive newbie in the huge world of improvised music, I believe him. Though lots of Moore’s fans envision him as a pioneer, as the realm of avant-garde music becomes a fashionable refuge for bored rockers and kids in small towns lament, “I hate my high school, no one else here listens to Sun Ra,” Moore himself is honest about the fact that the world of sound is so big that he can easily appear in one milieu as a wide-eyed student and return to another an innovative master. The Rolling Stones pulled a similar stunt with the blues, and the Beatles did it with Ravi Shankar (not to mention Yoko Ono) and both groups were similarly mistaken for innovators when they were in fact, like most great rock bands, “merely” brilliant synthesists.

Sonic Youth have been that all along. Lots of musicians tempered their alternate-tuning and noisemaking skills in the forge of Glenn Branca’s downtown guitar orchestras of the 70s and early 80s, but only Ranaldo and Moore went on to adapt them to songs that stuck–the mid-80s trilogy of Bad Moon Rising, Evol, and Sister still sounds fresh and fierce. But the threat of rock stardom and a ride on the Lollapalooza gravy train in the early 90s seemed to leach away a lot of Sonic Youth’s ferocity, if not their work ethic. As a result the three EPs and now the lush new double album, A Thousand Leaves, consititute a “comeback” that’s put them on the cover of at least three high-minded music magazines in the last three months.

As different as they are in sound and structure, what I love about the EPs amounts to more or less the same thing I love about A Thousand Leaves, and the greatest strength is also the greatest flaw: Sonic Youth sound like sugared-up kids on Christmas afternoon, with an overabundance of new toys to play with. The joyful excess of their approach to both improvisation and songwriting spreads like kudzu, and maybe some judicious pruning could have given a more intense focus, yielded one or two astoundingly good records instead of four sometimes mesmerizing, sometimes overindulgent ones. But Sonic Youth aren’t interested in being edited–“Sunday,” the only tune on A Thousand Leaves that follows the old SY formula (riff, riff, collapse into anarchic climactic noise jam, triumphant return of main riff out of the miasma) sticks out like a sore thumb (bumming a ride onto mix tapes everywhere, no doubt). Mostly they’re interested in getting lost. Moore and Ranaldo pad out A Thousand Leaves with delicately meandering phase-shifter fantasias like “Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)” and “Snare, Girl,” while Gordon’s songs, like “Contre le Sexisme,” “Female Mechanic Now on Duty,” and “The Ineffable Me,” explore darker turf, full of churning dissonances, dreamlike phrasings, and eerie clangs and thumps. It’s her songs that make the record sound more like a mature successor to the seductively sinister Bad Moon Rising than anything else. Without her songs, it would be only niche-marketing and snobbery that kept it a secret who the true successors to the Grateful Dead really are.

The Dead, too, once drew from lots of outside sources, some from pretty far afield, some from way too down-home to register on the pop-music grid, combining them in an elaborate, overripe jam format. Like the Dead, Sonic Youth have woven together strands of everything they liked once–hardcore ferocity, no wave’s confrontational ugliness, indie-rock solidarity, ironic celebrity fascination, the wordless conversations of improvised music–and then embodied the combination onstage. All the times the collage fell flat testified to the realness of the risk they took, and the times when it caught fire testified to the fundamental rightness of the mix.

Of course, the grassy good-time vibe that makes Deadheads so nauseatingly cheerful doesn’t wash with intensity-craving abrasive-rock types, and despite the occasional nature rhapsody like A Thousand Leaves’ “Hoarfrost,” Sonic Youth’s New York creepiness keeps the dancing bears at bay. And unlike the Dead, Sonic Youth have remained devoted to their own psychic gratification, a sage selfishness that ensures after 17 years that they still have something left to give. The Dead were widely beloved because after a while they did exactly what their audience expected–and that’s also why the Dead had a reputation for being god-awfully boring. Fulfilled expectations are the enemy of passion. In the small rooms of the improv cognoscenti, listeners also expect certain things; what’s unexpected is that somebody’s going to try to pass them off as rock ‘n’ roll, complete with an expensive and beautiful light show, a room full of screaming teenagers, and a mandatory encore. What’s unexpected is that the recontextualization will work–that a huge room will hop around and cheer on someone like the evening’s second opening act, tabletop guitarist Kevin Drumm (accompanied at the Riviera by Michael Colligan playing a plastic tube and funnel), as if it were rock ‘n’ roll. But thanks to Sonic Youth, a case could surely be made that if it wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll before, in that moment it was.

By the time Sonic Youth themselves finally took the stage, after Drumm, White Winged Moth, and the Ex had subjected an eager audience of about 3,000 to a crash course in some of the freshest flavors of guitar experimentation, they’d already fulfilled their role as popularizers and gifted compilers of unexpected combinations of elements. All they had to do then was play, and they played as they usually do, offering up their most recent work with few nods to the past, keeping the desperate-to-mosh guys perpetually off-balance. Though her savagely amelodic vocals were mixed unfortunately low, Gordon gave the noise-hungry the most to work with, and seemed to ignite the potential for chaos that Moore and Ranaldo were keeping tastefully in check, saving themselves for the long haul. While her switch to guitar for most of the set provided a richer high-end discourse, I sometimes missed her bass playing–the rhythmic lurches and transformations of the longer songs could have been tougher and less ethereal. But over time, given room to stretch out, the gradual build of the new material eventually led to a payoff almost as rewarding as the frenzy of old.

In their very name Sonic Youth represent a certain drive that lurks very close to the heart of rock ‘n’ roll–an oxymoronic urge to be forever plugged into something that’s exploding, to pursue one’s obsessions to logical and illogical conclusions, to pull everything one’s ever experienced into a whole that may or may not be cohesive but sure feels right. In pop music, that “desire that has no object,” as Federico Garcia Lorca called it, is too easily synthesized, but Sonic Youth have made the pursuit of outside interests their formula, and thus managed to keep their sense of methodical madness, walking a fine line between passion and pretention, noble ambition and crass appropriation, beauty and indulgence. And a tightrope walk is always beautiful to watch, even when there’s a safety net.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Marty Perez.