Sunday, May 30, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 10--Days When They Use Ta)


June 1990

It was a big deal when Sonic Youth did a u-turn and exited onto the main road. They sold out. They comprised their ideals, which were the ideals of the entire indie rock underground scene. They would inevitably dilute their sound for the sake of wider appeal. They sucked the corporate cock in general, and David Geffen's in particular, or at least they were on the waiting list.

Except not really.

It was a great time to be 12 years old, discover Sonic Youth's music, and be ignorant of all the drama.

"Dirty Boots"--Dishonesty can sound delightful, but sometimes songs don't lie. The opening track of the rest of Sonic Youth's life does have an undeniable whiff of Pigpen about it, a loopy dust cloud kicking up around maracas and oddly-configured guit-fiddles. The lyrics are mainly Thurston Moore borrowing hippie dribble to evoke the rugged romance of the touring band. That's all well and wanted dead or alive, but "jelly roll" was and forever is the worst slang term for penis ever dreamed.

"Tunic"--I don't like ironic enjoyment. I know someone who watches TMZ to feel superior. There but for the grace of God goes you being asked if you and David Spade are more than friends as you're trying to get a limo out of LAX, I say.

SY's fondness for the saccharine pop of the Carpenters never struck me as disingenuous simply because I find it easy to believe as a fan of that genre. As much as Richard tried to superimpose himself on their songs as some sort of multitrack genius (oh do not start me up on the backing vocals during the chorus of "Yesterday Once More," the second occurrence of it I mean. The first time is pure magic) his sister Karen was blessed with an effortlessly ethereal voice that stared down studio tricks and glasses of warm milk. She was also cursed with a body and mind twisted into a Gordian knot by anorexia nervosa, a disorder that not many acknowledged, much less comprehended, in 1983, the year her heart finally gave up.

"Tunic" is a soulful tribute, stuck together with Galaxy Glue, juxtaposing the helplessness of the body with the hopefulness of the spirit. Karen herself may or may not have dug it, but I guarantee she woulda said, "The drummer is really good."

"Mary Christ"--Thurston's Cat-hole lick guilt flaring up again. I can't name too many of that religion who never fantasized about making the Pope eat their pussy, or face-fucking Mary.

"Kool Thing"--The coolest thing (ha, shit!) about "Mary Christ" is how the riff to "Kool Thing" is kinda buried there at the end. It's one of those riffs Thurston had in his backpack for awhile, as you can hear him bust it out between songs on the 1987 speed-boot Hold That Tiger. It's also as undeniable as In and Out Burger, and goes just as good with a bottle of Heineken.

I don't get overprotective or overly defensive with Sonic Youth, although I could forgive someone who only knows me through my writing thinking otherwise. I do get a little bodyguard-ish with this song, though. It's the first Sonic song I ever heard, after all, via DC 101.

Sonic Youth on non-college radio. I want y'all to wrap ya heads around that, like caramel slowly spun around a chocolate bar, like I saw on some commercial. Sonic Youth amid all the other mainstream rock on the airwaves.

Then I saw the video on MTV. Again, caramel around chocolate. If you aren't reading this sitting down, or laying down, you probably by now wish you were. On second thought, that's real fuckin' weird if you're like standing right now reading a blog. You must be real obsessive about blood clots.

I wasn't the only one in my home whose attention was captured; my brother (and senior by eleven years) also dug on "Kool Thing." Course, he was always a sucker for the Golem riff. He was also a sex-obsessed party-dude metalhead, making him about as unique as a raindrop. He also wasn't a very malleable type cat, a trait I admire way less nowadays. His tastes in music, his life philosophy, his hopes for the future, none of that was changed by hearing "Kool Thing" or buying Goo. It went alongside his Metallica, Ministry, Beastie Boys and Judas Priest CDs until he finally gave into my daily pleas to borrow it.

He didn't get that CD back.

It wasn't just the music, although I guess it isn't very pure to say that. Well I'm not into purity so much as honesty with my appreciation of any art. Yes my young mind was enraptured by the guitar sounds, so different from the songs I heard on MTV or on the radio or via my brothers extensive collection of music. It was also the aforementioned video, kinetic imagery and intermittent colors, and Kim Gordon. Madonna was still ruling shit back then, and in all of her videos you could see that she was in thrall with the general idea of sexuality. Kim was coming across as a woman aware of and projecting outwards her own sexuality. It was processed--all sexuality is--but Madonna was reeking of chemicals. Kim was flavorful: intimidating, but not imperious; sensuous but not submissive (at least not to the viewer); ajar, not open.

It's funny then to realize that the subject of "Kool Thing" is a younger, more naive Kim, one who idealized rapper LL Cool J and then rapidly realized after talking with him that he was a Bon Jovi-digging materialist. (He made Radio, though, so you can't rip the guy too much.) One MC whose gait matched his yak was Chuck D, and SY convinced their studio mate to drop some silliness in the middle of "Kool Thing." (Being Chuck D, however, it turned out being some authoritarian-sounding silliness.) The back 'n forth between Kim and Chuck produced the amazing "fear of a female planet," a twist on Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, released the same year as Goo. (The PE crew planned on reciprocating the artistic generosity by having Kim provide vox to "Revolutionary Generation," but the schedules could never synchronize, and the world was denied a member of Sonic Youth appearing on one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time.)

Wow, I am saying a lot of things. Word up Pam Beesly.

"Mote"--Lee's one shot at glory this go-round, 'cause apparently Geffen was like "poet dude with three songs is overkill, regulate that, married couple."

Lee takes inspiration from Sylvia Plath's poem "The Eye-Mote" and proves himself worthy as a rock lyricist can of one of the true masters of textual imagery. The music is evocative of Plath, a buzzing note-bed for a stealthy melody line to kick restless legs in. What else? J Mascis and Lee sound great together, too.

That's it, right?

No.

The last four minutes is like watching a slo-mo video of someone sitting on the bathroom floor, face pale and sweaty, twitching from the superhuman effort not to vomit. Eventually they fail, and hike themselves up on bended knees to decorate the toilet. Then they plop back down on their butt, and reach a hand off camera, drawing back to reveal the same bottle of Scotch that took them over the edge. They're not gonna drink more of it are they? Oh yeah. Hearty chug, in fact. Fucking drastic.

"My Friend Goo"--Kim and Thurston switch instruments for this one. I have an issue of Musician featuring SY 'round the time of Goo, and I do not get why Thurston used this song as a blatant example of Kim's improved musicianship on bass. Because she's not fucking playing bass on this song. It's a flat-out lie, and it's not the usual fun, flip bullshit Thurston offers up in Q and A's. It's just misleading and dishonest. He should have been talking up Kim's endlessly fresh approach to six strings. (I'll be doing that later on in this series.)

This song is so goddamn corny. Off and on the cob. It's kind of amazing how childish an obvious intellectual mind can be. But J Mascis pops up yet again, and his deadpan contribution is classic.

(It's so good I didn't see the video for this song at age twelve, or I woulda been turned off guys completely, instead of just halfway like I am now.)

"Disappearer"--I was gonna say this was Thurston's last great lyrical display, but then I tried to contradict myself and got real confuzzled. It's hot, dry, I'm moving in a week, my brain is just scrambled. Lucky me, "Disappearer" scrapes the yellow mess off the plate and replaces it with sunny side variety. Now I get to breathe and feel the freedom of the expansion. Kim told Melody Maker that Goo's songs were "like little gumballs," so Don Fleming stops by to blend in.

The first review of any SY anything my eyes saw was Tom Verlaine's guest write-up of Goo in Spin, and he was especially enamored of the lyrics to this song. (And no, I didn't know who Tom Verlaine was, and what he meant to Sonic Youth. I was exposed to a shit-ton of music as a kid thanks to my thousand siblings, but it was pretty much the same music everybody knew anyway. I wasn't like Jim O'Rourke in the womb kicking at his mom's stomach whenever she stood near some Van Dyke Parks in the record store.)

"Disappearer" is for sure a road ode, but while the lyrics suggest astral travel, I always feel on terra firma when I listen to it. I can see deep blue, some pink, crisscrossing, dissolving, leaving trails. Everything accelerates: music, vehicle, heartbeat.

"Mildred Pierce"--Rampaging near-instrumental, aaaand one of the first alleged songs SY ever dreamed up. I want Thurston's final scream as a ringtone. And so do you, now that I suggested it, ya copycat.

"Cinderella's Big Score"--Thurston told a journo that this was "a real personal song for Kim," and the line "You'd rather have a dollar than a hug from your sis," considered alongside the first image in the video for the song tells the rest of the story.

Thurston's behind the bridge style on this song is another of those innovations that was jacked quiet as kept from SY.

The whole feel of "CBS" is deliriously seasick, like the eggs from "Disappearer" didn't set right. Prob'ly I should not-a drank the Yoo Hoo with them. Oh well. This song rules and I would do it again.

"Scooter and Jinx"--Richard Kern implicated in amp murder. Sex in the courtroom expected. Stenographer with a taste for the lurid wanted.

"Titanium Expose"--Like the band took every classic rock riff it used to discard in the old days as counter to the movement and made a four-course piecemeal. Proof that SY not only are able to do the accessible and familiar, but they can excel at it as well. Can't you just see Joe Satriani , top down on his Camaro, some hot babe's hand on his right thigh, blaring this into the phony California air?

Thurston claimed in an interview that the songs subject matter (the routine that makes connubial bliss) informed the title, that married love could be strong as titanium. Then in another interview, he said that the title was actually based on something he misheard out of J Mascis' mouth. The last one? The true one.

The lyrics are very honorable to the quiet power of a sweet union, though. The musical and lyrical synergy of

I been waiting for you
To smile all the pretty freezing
Winter time comes summer
You are why it's happenin'


is enough to make me yearn for true love, the kind that pulses in the blood.

Goo gets better with age. The record that allegedly made Kim cry from its misrepresentation of Sonic Youth's sound now stands as one of their truly great accomplishments. A lot of people still say the 8-track demos are better, but aside from the smarter pacing of "Mary Christ," that's a ton of hooey. Put that one in the SY urban legends pile along with Kim and Thurston are trust fund babies, Kim was a heroin addict, and Sister is perceptible on Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.

Except...nah. You gotta wait another album for that one.

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