Sonic Youth – so cool, they’re hard to like. The band started in 1981. But they took eleven years to catch my attention. Before the internet, discovering a new band was hit or miss. DC’s one ‘alternative’ radio station, WHFS was gearing up for its corporate sellout in 1983, and its ultimate twenty year decline. The least commercial rock station in town, I had it on all the time. To the best of my knowledge, they never played a Sonic Youth song.
A common way to get hooked on a new band was to hear it at a friend’s house or in their car. Of my friends, I was the most avant garde, the most experimental. Many liked the post-punk alternative music we heard on WHFS, but they were also still stuck in the seventies and sixties. Hippy music and classic rock. Until I caught on to Sonic Youth, it was unlikely that any of us were going to hear them.
Or you needed to read about a new band in a music magazine. For me, Spin Magazine was the most likely source for this. I now know that Spin wrote about Sonic Youth, and they even had a band member, Kim Gordon, write articles about other artists. But in the eighties, after reading about a band, if you wanted to listen, you still needed to buy the music, typically a whole record album from a store, to give it a try. I was never sold.
And every now and then you might hear a new band in a bar or a club. Played as filler music before the band came on, or between sets. But Sonic Youth was a New York thing. The DC bands and clubs just weren’t into them.
So it took me eleven years to actually hear the band. Long after they stopped representing the ‘youth’ in their name. In 1992, most of the band members were well into their thirties. By this time their name was familiar to me. In fact, my brain made a mis-connection. I thought they were the same group as Musical Youth. The early eighties pop-reggae band who had a hit with “Pass the Dutchie.” So in truth, Sonic Youth was not a band I was seeking out.
* * * * * *
I met Stacey in Spanish class. Yes, as a thirty year old, I decided to retake Spanish. I took it in high school, but none of it stuck. I struggled with the language, and I battled with my teacher, Mrs. Eddy. I even managed to get suspended as a result of some verbal sparring I engaged in with Mrs. Eddy. She called me a baby, I called her a bitch. My excuse is that I was seventeen.
I was bored. I wanted to meet some new people. I was looking for some redemption from my horrible high school experience. In a language class, not only would I be exposed to a new crowd, make some friends, but I would do something useful at the same time. It worked out well. While my Spanish skills only improved marginally, I met the woman I would date for the next five or six months.
It was never a great relationship. It teetered on the edge of something pretty good and something terribly awkward. We didn’t fit together at all. She was hard for me to read. Large areas of her ‘being’ seemed off limits, behind a fence. She was a feminist in a way that I didn’t understand. Talking about sex seemed verboten – I felt like she thought it was disrespectful towards women. She also seemed hipper than me. Only two years out of college, she was still building her life, still deciding who she was going to be, what she was going to do. But around her I felt pedestrian, a sellout with my corporate job. Lacking control – I often drank too much, and became embarrassing at parties. She hated my friends, she thought they were yuppies.
The relationship wasn’t going to last, so I broke it off. Poorly. Over the phone. There were many aspects about dating Stacey that were positive, but for me, two things stand out as her lasting legacy. One is how she sat me down after the break up, when I was getting my leather coat back from her. She gave me some feedback on how immature it was to call off a half year relationship over the phone. I think her exact words were “Sit down, I’d like to give you some feedback on that breakup…” One last time, proving that she was more together than me.
Her other legacy is turning me on to Sonic Youth.
We saw the documentary The Year Punk Broke in a small, grungy , independent theater in DC. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and simply going into this empty, dirty, beat up theater felt like a very punk/New York thing to do. I rarely went to movies, and I never went to documentaries. I saw being in a theater on a sunny afternoon as blasphemy.
To “sell” the movie to me, Stacey said there would be lots of scenes with Nirvana. The movie is made from footage of a tour that Sonic Youth took with Nirvana in 1991 – the year Nirvana released Nevermind – the year punk broke into mainstream rock. Watching this movie turned me into a Sonic Youth fan.
I guess I’d call Sonic Youth a punk band. But not in the way that any other band is punk. The music is noise. Artfully crafted noise. It appeals to some, but probably not to many. At times it is musical, even poppy, but mostly it is dissonant, scraping, agitating. There are melodies, but usually they are subtle. For me, the music is about energy.
When I think of Sonic Youth, I think of fire, various types of fire. Songs that remind me of uncontained house-fires – burning with building intensity until they explode into mayhem. Songs that are like igniting a charcoal grill with far too much lighter-fluid – a flash, a roaring flame until the fuel is spent. And then settling into a simmer. Or even songs like a campfire on a very wet day. Smoldering, on the edge of combustion, creating ash, but never making the leap into a real fire.
I’m rather unimpressive as a Sonic Youth fan. My intersection with the band was brief. I only own a few albums. The most commercial albums they made. The three albums released just prior to my ‘discovery’ of them – Daydream Nation, Goo and Dirty. But these three albums are fantastic, and probably represent the high-point of their career. I’m sure they are dismissed by real Sonic Youth fans as their sellout albums. Their attempt to reach a broader market. A mistaken desire to bask in some corporate cash. But typically what appears to be a sellout is an acknowledgment of greatness. The band hits stride, the world notices, and major labels are attracted. A chance for the suits to cash in on all the hard work. The hard work already completed. Like Nirvana’s Nevermind. Like Green Day’s Dookie.
Most of my music listening today is centered around my spin class. Twice per week, I pull together an hour of music designed to motivate, educate, shock and appease a cross-section of athletes. They range in age, backgrounds and musical tastes. The Sonic Youth songs I use most frequently, Dirty Boots, Tunic and Sugar Kane, are not typical material for spin class play-lists. But they are long songs that build in intensity and have enough musicality in them that people rarely complain. Some other songs I have used, Kissability, Mildred Pierce and Orange Rolls, Angel’s Spit, are a little rougher. When I use these songs, I expect, and I receive, some push back.
I only saw Sonic Youth in concert once – a 2004 show at DC’s 9:30 Club. Thinking back, I remember enjoying the show, but a decade later, all I really remember is the volume. A night that remains in my mind as the loudest, most uncomfortable concert I ever attended. Loud enough to make me dizzy. Loud enough to cause muffled hearing for days. Today, my hearing sucks. Ask my kids, they’ll say my favorite word is “WHAT??” I’ve been resisting much needed hearing aids for a few years now. When people ask if my hearing loss is genetic, I always say no, it’s Sonic Youth. But this is a wasted joke. In my small, rural town, no one knows much about Sonic Youth.
* * * * * *
I started writing this essay because I just read Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl in a Band. I wanted to write a review. I didn’t like the book and I wanted to bash on it some. The book started well. The first chapter about Sonic Youth’s last show was a clever way to set up the book. And then as expected, it went to Kim’s backstory. In every biography I’ve ever read, the early years, the section before fame and wealth, is my favorite part. Learning about influences, family members, defining experiences. I got none of this from Girl in a Band.
What I got was a bunch of self-promoting and pretentious name-dropping. Long passages about artists that no one knows. And quick mentions of artists that no one knows. There must be four hundred people mentioned in the book, but to tell this story only a handful are relevant. I felt as if Kim was trying to give a shout-out to everyone she ever met.
I was also offered several confusing, contradicting points:
In one passage, she applauds an artist for her outspoken views against DC’s straight-edge ethos of shunning drinking, drugs, sex and consumerism. But the next paragraph goes on to describe the straight-edge movement in such glowing terms, it isn’t clear why she appreciates the artist for bashing it.
I was also confused about her romanticism of New York in the seventies. She spends a whole page describing the disintegrated state of the city. The rampant crime and drug use. The inability to walk the streets because of the danger. Then she spends the next paragraph ridiculing the clean-up of these problems. Complaining that New York is no longer real. A Disneyland version of what it once was. As if the only real city is one that you cannot use for fear of your life.
Towards the end of the book, Kim lost me altogether when she stated that a man cannot be a full partner in raising a child. Using her ex-husband as an example – the man she has spent a couple hundred pages describing as a self-absorbed, selfish man – she says that “no man can feel the necessary urgency” required to properly comfort a crying child. And then she tries to prove this point by suggesting that she was the only one in her house who could handle the family’s laundry.
Kim Gordon’s inability to write a compelling memoir has not fouled my appreciation of Sonic Youth. Reading this book, despite its flaws, was a worthwhile trip into my past. It gave me a chance to reminisce about people, events and songs that don’t get much of my attention any more.
Undeniably, Sonic Youth is cool. They essentially invented a genre, and they challenged fans of punk to appreciate it. They transcended the hard driving beat of the Ramones and Black Flag. They stuck a finger in the eye of the bands who rely on melody or image to hook an audience. They created noise, energy, tension and anxiety with the same instruments that the Partridge Family used to play “I Think I Love You.”
And if nothing else, they created the prototype for the hot-punk-girl-bass-player.