Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Radical Adults deserve radical books to be written about them, but for now Goodbye 20th Century will have to do

Sonic Youth holds such a tremendous yet peculiar place in music as to confound any attempt to explain it to an unknowing bystander. One can certainly propose a lineage of sorts, tracing their roots in New York visual arts and underground culture in such a way that links them to The Velvet Underground and Talking Heads, yet Sonic Youth, with its core membership of Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley and Thurston Moore, has blazed a trail far longer than either of these predecessors. In fact I’d be hard pressed to think of any other more or less democratically-geared rock band in history that has stayed together and remained as active and engaged, as enthused and good-humoured, as prolific while, to my ear at least, never once phoning it in.

Their music rose out of a sensibility that for all its obsessive influences still feels somehow essentially sui generis, the product of suburban kids with gravely mistreated instruments dragging their enthusiasm for pop art, the Beats, Charles Manson, science fiction and the avant garde into their parents’ garage, producing growling enactments of a head-on collision between the monolithic guitar armies of Glenn Branca, ferocities deconstructed from punk rock and no wave, shuddering B-horror movie soundtracks, and a barely secret infatuation with classic rock, pop and jazz. I’ve been in love with the band since high school, and my familiarity with their work on record or in concert only makes classification feel that much more futile.

I’d never paid too much attention to their private lives or working practices, but, coming on the crest of a wave of new or recent SY-related literature—Moore and Byron Coley Abrams’ No Wave: Post-Punk Underground New York 1976-1980 and The Empty Page: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth are especially tempting reads—David Browne’s Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (Da Capo, $27.95) seemed too intriguing to pass on. With a sprawling discography a quarter century of general activity under or beyond the SY moniker to draw upon, not to mention extensive interviews with SY and virtually everyone ever associated with the band, Browne’s relatively hefty tome promised something authoritative and thorough at the very least.

Though the prose is pretty baggy and the use of quotations often redundant, the facts and anecdotes collected in Goodbye 20th Century are indeed fascinating. That Gordon’s father wrote the first major study of adolescent factions, that her mother made clothes for the family, that the young Gordon once choreographed a dance based on a narrative deduced from her rearranging of her father’s jazz album covers, or that she later made a student film about Patty Hearst intriguingly conveys the roots of a highly unusual modus operandi. Reading about how ‘Teenage Riot’ was intended as a campaign song for imaginary US Presidential candidate J. Mascis, how SY were instrumental in getting Nirvana signed to DGC, how Chuck D performed his part in the ‘Kool Thing’ video while standing in a hallway between meetings, how Gordon once made dinner for Neil Young on his tour bus after buying raw meat from a roadside KFC: all of these items enliven and enrich anyone’s reading of the Sonic Youth story.

What’s seriously lacking in Browne’s book however anything like a close critical analysis of the band’s work, habits or lifestyle—and when Browne does suddenly try to get a little tough on the band’s music near the end, his observations, such as suddenly deciding that 2000's NYC Ghosts and Flowers, a record so sharpened with tension as to make your hairs stand on end, was the first time the band sounded "pretentious," seem way off the mark. Goodbye 20th Century may provide constant candy for curious SY fans but it rarely digs below the surface, offering only a vague idea as to how their songs are constructed and relying on rock critic boilerplate to describe their music. Browne also seems frequently overwhelmed by the band’s prolific output, barely giving us an idea of Ranaldo or Moore’s catalogue non-SY outings. And the culture junky nerds who will inevitably constitute a large part of this book’s readership will be irked by numerous minor errors found throughout: Nick Cave being called British, Bad Brains being called “The Bad Brains,” or William S. Burroughs’ Kansas home being located in Nebraska. (More frustrating still, while old WSB appears twice in the book’s truly superb photo inserts, the guy’s barely mentioned in the actual text!)

I suppose it would have been too much to expect a book about Sonic Youth to be even half as adventurous as the band’s music—yet an inventive approach to writing about music is so welcome when one surveys the music section of any store or library. On my own shelves I can quickly pick out the music-related titles that stand out in any way, nearly all of them diverging from the conventional model, whether it’s Ashley Kahn’s
Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, wild, stream-of-consciousness memoirs from the likes of Iggy Pop or Bob Dylan, Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful or Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus’ The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. Compared to these, nearly all of the standard cradle-to-grave/rise-and-fall bios seem dull and formally slavish, notable mostly for their various levels of banal, groupie-screwing dirt.

Reservations aside, I’m still deeply grateful to Browne for what amounts to an enormous investment in chronicling a unique, unruly, and still unfolding chapter in music history. What does come across in Goodbye 20th Century very well—besides its catalogue of dingy NYC apartments in the early 1980s—is a sense of how several individual, highly distinctive and equally opinionated artists can get together and continually work toward developing a sound all their own while still attempting to manage something akin to a career, as well as spouses, children and mortgages. More than is usually the case, for rock at least, the story of Sonic Youth is the story of extraordinary creativity being balanced with basically ordinary lives. And the result of such alchemy is genuinely inspiring.

No comments: