All of the Sonic Youth

by david

Sonic Youth is done. Lee Ranaldo tells us they may have some archive projects yet to release (no surprise–surely their posthumous activity will rival anybody’s), but with the performance of their last concert in Brazil last month, we can mark November 2011 as the likely end of Sonic Youth as a living band.

This bums me out, far more than I thought it would. When REM broke up a few months back, it didn’t really give me pause, but a lot of my friends–including the one to which I’m legally wed–saw it as a real moment. To me, REM had already stopped being a vital part of the music world: I thought of them in the past tense.

I suspect many, many people feel the same about Sonic Youth. That’s to be expected with any band. Not every fan goes the whole way with them. It’s almost impossible to find an Elvis Costello fan who likes ALL of it. Tom Waits has shed and gained fans as he’s changed styles. The odds of being a fan of a band’s entire career, a band that evolves so much over multiple decades, must be only slightly better than the odds of having a successful marriage to your highschool sweetheart. There’s just no guarantee you’re going to evolve in the same direction.

Well, I didn’t marry my highschool sweetheart, but I think I might have married Sonic Youth. We had our disagreements, especially when they went through their end-of-the-millenium Beat revival thing. But on the big stuff, we stayed in sync.

Quick digression: I’ve always been very uncomfortable with the word and concept “fan.” I’m hesitant to describe myself as a fan of almost anything. Maybe it comes from being disappointed by other artists, whether they were musicians or directors or writers, who lost the magic for me. Maybe it smacks of being uncritical, or just being uncool. My friend Kevin Quigley has made me reconsider this, as he is both simultaneously a committed fan and real critic of his favorites (maybe the definition of a fan is somebody who wants and expects the best from the object of their affection, not somebody who just prepares to like it and won’t hear criticism). Sonic Youth is one of the only bands of which I can unreservedly say “I’m a fan.” 

I loved EVOL. I loved Daydream Nation. I loved Goo and Dirty. “The Diamond Sea” from Washing Machine will go with me to the desert island, and hearing them play it live was one of the best live music experiences I’ve ever had. The last four albums, those from their third decade, are tremendous. More melodic, certainly, and maybe that’s a downer for some early fans. Not for me, though. “Karen Revisited” on Murray Street is another “Diamond Sea.” These four albums also start and end like no others in their history. I’ve always been fascinated by opening and closing tracks, and these four got it so right, in the way that the final Guided By Voices album did, or the way Pink Floyd did on Dark Side of the Moon. Maybe that’s a post of its own.

I don’t know much about them as people. I’ve read Kim Gordon writing about the art and music scene of New York in the 80s. I’ve listened to side projects of Thurston’s and Lee’s. I’ve come to appreciate the role of the drummer everywhere through listening to and watching Steve Shelley. Sonic Youth has shaped and challenged my view of feminism, art and commerce, the persistence and dissolution of subcommunities, and frankly, taught me that a guitar can be a percussion instrument. They’re one of the few bands that I actually think about. When I read that Kim and Thurston were breaking up, my interest wasn’t of the tabloid variety, but like hearing that a favorite writer died. They’ve been altering my brain for a long time. And Kim and Thurston were, more to the tabloid end of things, in my mind, a good model of a couple working together on really interesting creative work, and doing things their way. It’s sad to see that end.

Just after watching the footage of their final concert (embedded below; a concert which drew on their catalog in surprising breadth and impressive omissions), I decided to listen to all of their albums, in order. Don’t worry, I’m not going to liveblog it. But I’ve just hit a transition point, as “Teenage Riot” started playing as I started this post. Maybe their most-loved song, and the first track on probably their most-loved album. I’m still mid-process, but Daydream Nation is sounding like both the beginning and the end of Sonic Youth. The band on Confusion is Sex could be a different group from the one that recorded The Eternal. But from Daydream Nation, you can see both horizons. It seemed a decent moment to post some first thoughts. In a separate post, I’ll just make some observations on listening to it in order. I haven’t heard some of these in years, and I’m genuinely surprised by some of what I’m hearing.

For now, I’ll leave off with a pretty unremarkable observation: there are Sonic Youth fans who hate “Kim songs” and some who can’t figure out why Thurston sings at all. There are Sonic Youth fans who love them as a noise band, and others who love the relatively unsnarling clean pop of Dirty, and though I don’t know them, I’m sure there are some who found them in the last decade, the years they started to really sing, when they were composing distortion-laced dreamscape soundtracks and pulling relentless and driving songs and melodies Magic Eye-like from screaming fields of sonic fuzz. I’d take any of these Sonic Youths, and they’d be a favorite band. I’m glad I’ve got them all.

The first Sonic Youth video I ever watched (on MTV’s “120 Minutes” which was once guest hosted by Thurston Moore, who that night interviewed an unknown young man named Beck who was releasing a single called “Loser”):

And heck, here’s that Thurston/Beck interview: