Remembering Sonic Youth

I picked up Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl In A Band, from the library today and am already half finished… which is something of a surprise because I usually find autobiographies and biographies difficult to read quickly, especially if they’re about artists/musicians rather than historical figures such as Mao, Lenin, or Luxemburg.  My enjoyment of the memoir, in retrospect, isn’t really that surprising.  Sonic Youth is one of the bands I have followed since I was twelve, and whose albums I return to time and time again, and many of the other bands I followed were bands that were connected to, influenced, or cited by Sonic Youth.  (For example, I got into Bikini Kill because Gordon was something of a rock-and-roll godmother to Kathleen Hanna.)

Like many, in the year before Gordon released her memoir, I was slightly devastated by the end of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s marriage, which of course signalled the end of Sonic Youth.  The memoir speaks to all of this, placing Gordon’s experience as a founding member of Sonic Youth and the eventual end of that experience, in the context of multiple art and music scenes.  Most importantly, it makes me want to listen to all of my Sonic Youth albums again – and to go out and download those albums that I only possessed on cassette (given away a year ago with all of my cassettes to the local Goodwill).  Indeed, after reading the first five chapters while my daughter was watching television, I pulled out the first Sonic Youth album I could find on my CD shelf (Washing Machine) and put it on so that my daughter, who loves rock and roll (her words, in fact, like the Joan Jett song: “I love rock and roll!”), could dance out her energy.

Up until eighth grade, my music tastes were formed by the artists in my parents’ and my friends’ parents’ record collections.  I didn’t like most of what I heard on the radio station and instead, like my two best friends, spent all of my time listening to the Beatles, Dylan, Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, and other 1960s/70s artists.  A slight exception was made, in sixth and seventh grade, for Guns and Roses, but I never saved up my allowance money to buy Appetite for Destruction – I just liked playing air guitar to “Sweet Child of Mine” and that was about it.  But in eighth grade, when my best friend’s older brothers were getting into “cool” contemporary music, I started getting into contemporary bands and musicians that excited me more than the music I’d simply absorbed from my parents’ generation.  One of the first three albums I bought that was not from the 60s/70s was Goo.  (The other two, and I can’t remember which of the three I bought first, were the Cure’s Disintegration and Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet.)

Sonic Youth thus occupies an important place in my music-developmental education; they dominated the soundtrack of my teenage years.  Like, for example, when I finally made the jump from cassettes to CDs (can’t recall if it was 10th or 11th grade) and Sonic Youth formed the bridge of this jump: Dirty was my last (non-dubbed) cassette, Experimental Jet Set was my first CD.  For a while I would get Sonic Youth albums as birthday presents each year.

(Weird thing is, I never saw them in concert.  Back in those days I saw a lot of bands in concert, even taking trips to Toronto to see the ones that wouldn’t play London Ontario, but I missed out on Sonic Youth.  I’m not precisely sure why I failed to see them in concert, why they were no more than a soundtrack and there was no encounter with the metaphorical man behind the curtain.)

Since my musical interests were located in Sonic Youth, I never cared too much about Nirvana.  When Nevermind took the radio stations by storm, and everyone was talking about “alternative music” and “grunge”, I had already been listening to Goo for months so I was less impressed.  I had even heard Bleach, thanks to that friend’s older brothers, and was not really that excited.  I was more excited by the Jesus Lizard, and kind of saw this Nirvana garage band revival as something that was derivative Sonic Youth, who I preferred.  This isn’t to say I disliked Nirvana, but only that I liked Dirty more than In Utero – and that the latter is important to me only insofar as it introduced me to Steve Albini, and thus Big Black and Shellac.

In many ways, Sonic Youth typified the dissonance of my teenaged years and paralleled my interests.  When I got into Burroughs and Ginsberg, as a lot of high school kids looking for “cool” literature did, I was excited to discover that Sonic Youth possessed similar interests.  And later, in the early days of university, when I began to follow the avant garde noise music that my city possessed some historical cache in promoting (the Nihilist Spasm Band of the 1960s/70s being significant in this regard) I was shocked to discover that London’s “No Music Festival” was frequented by Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo.

I would also like to think that Sonic Youth’s place in my adolescent soundtrack contributed to the politics I would eventually adopt.  While I’m not under the impression that they were a bunch of communists pursuing revolution – nor do I really care since I appreciate them primarily for their music – there was that line of Gordon’s in “Kool Thing” that intrigued my twelve year old self: “are you gonna liberate us girls from male white corporate oppression?”  And that question, like so much of Sonic Youth, seemed pretty fucking cool.

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