Monday, June 7, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 11--A Screeching Mud Puddle)

7/21/92 (what is it with works of art released on 7/21 that alter my beast for the better?)

"The music stopped in the nineties. People just added a little distortion, a little imitation Sonic Youth, and called it alternative."--Tracii Guns, Rolling Stone, 12/27/07

1992 was the year after Nirvana-mania hit. At the time, it wasn't annoying. How could it have been? I was barely 15 years old. However was I to know that two years later Cobain would off himself, permitting Courtney Love to metastasize, and assuring his ascension to the ranks of the prematurely deceased artists whose creations take on a kind of mega-significance that they never would have had said artists lived to 70. I had no inkling that 45% of all Spin mag issues post-April '94 would feature Cobain on the cover. All I had really was my burgeoning obsession with the band that made that whole monstrosity of ambivalence possible.

1992 was the year Sonic Youth would cash in, break out, get a gold record. Years of providing examples in and out of the recording studio, of nurturing and cultivating like-minded artists, of tirelessly championing the would finally pay off. In aid of making salable the band that featured two veterans of Glenn Branca's guitar army, producer Butch Vig and engineer Andy Wallace (aka "the Nevermind team") were brought on to man the boards. It also didn't hurt that the influence of Nirvana and Mudhoney meant Sonic Youth were writing catchier, more melodic songs and performing them with a near-tangible recklessness.

1992 was the year I played Dirty every day of the year from July 21 on.

1992 was the year everyone realized Sonic Youth were never gonna "make it big."

1992 was the year my brain broke. And SY's tough love approach--"you should reassemble it yourself"--meant that no other band would ever have my heart, soul and mind like they would.

"100%"--The fuckin' righteous enormity of Sonic Youth has never been harnessed so tight. Not just with this song, but this whole album. A few of the songs took inspiration, however, from decidedly unrighteous events.

The murder in 1991 of beloved underground roadie/actor Joe Cole devastated many, including Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. (Thurston's recollection of finding out that Cole had died, as told in the Henry Rollins bio Turned On, is heartbreaking.) Each would be moved to write a song in Cole's honor, and Dirty begins with Thurston's tribute.

"100%" starts off squealing and crackling, like a pig being fried alive. Then the riff drops on your bones. Thurston's lyrics immortalize "a blast in the underworld" using references indecipherable by outsiders and graphic turns of phrase.

(In 2002, there was a hilarious brouhaha on the forum over one of the lines to "100%." A poster lost to the Ethernet wondered if Thurston was saying "Ease off the chick is mine" or...not that. Responses came steadily, suggesting that the true lyric was "He's off to check his mind," "His alter chick is mine" and it got increasingly ridiculous until finally SY insider Chris "The Canadian" Lawrence had to step in and clear it up via email query. Turns out Opie Moore was saying, "The zoftig chick is mine." Then everyone wondered what the hell "zoftig" meant. (It's a nice way of noting someone is fat. I know all about them euphemisms.)

"Swimsuit Issue"--You know what's almost as good a look as Rodarte Kim? Feminist Kim. A nameless Geffen exec fond of inviting women into his office to check out and possibly rate his beat-off technique is immortalized here. Bonus points for using the word "field." Bonus ten points for utilizing the tri-guitar attack. Fools don't know about Kim G's style.

Yeah, "whammy" is a goofy slang term for "penis," but it's still leagues better than "jelly roll." Also it makes me think of "Whammy Kiss" by the B-52s. ("WHEN I GET HOME!" Fred Schneider always makes sex sound like something you gotta answer for.)

The verses are just candy coating till the bubble gum at the end, when Kim drops her voice a fair octave and spreads out all sultry as she recites a list of supermodels. I always wondered what Kim's ultimate point was here. That the culture of beauty promotes sexual harassment?

"Theresa's Sound-World"--My favorite back then, my favorite right now. Says a lot either for the timelessness of the tune or my stasis as a listener. Heavy on light, this is the capo di tutti capo of Dirty. Imagine that the fizzy lifting drinks led to Charlie and Grandpa Joe getting chopped to shreds. Butch Vig called this "a performance from another dimension," and not one syllable is hyperbole. My Bloody Valentine provide earplugs at certain gigs because they play at an insane volume to overcompensate for a lack of stage presence. If Sonic Youth ever put this 'un back on their set lists, it would behoove them to hand out adult diapers.

"Drunken Butterfly"--Ya head. In a vice. Oh well, shoulda paid up, I got no sympathy. These verses got Heart, the chorus opens Doors. Cracker-crisp but never crumbles.

When you have Steve Shelley on the throne, why would you ever feel compelled to add drum samples to the mix? It would be like saying, "You know what would make Anthony Bourdain's show even better? If he interacted with that douche from Diners Drive-Ins and Dives! 'Tony, this lobster ravioli is money!'"

"Shoot"--The Japanese call it "DV." In America, it's a man's right to put his woman in her place, or something. The bass line is almost as evil. (Not all female bassists have to be Tina Weymouth, you know.) I have a deep history with violence against women; it's not just something I decided to be outraged by, and sought stories from other women to live vicariously through. I'd go deeper into it if I felt it was your business.

Anyway, the asshole gets shot. Good one on him.

"Wish Fulfillment"--The super-produced sheen of Dirty fits almost all the songs. This is the odd one out.

'Course, I ain't really realize truly why at the time. From the beginning I never liked it so much, it kinda struck me cornball popcheese. Meanwhile everyone and their stepmom holds it up as yet more proof of Lee's heart-rending poetic brilliance. Meanwhile I'm hungry. I just didn't get it.

Then I got hold of a recording of a Lee solo gig in Hartford, CT, circa 1996. He does "Wish Fulfillment" solo, just him and an acoustic guitar, and I forgot to breathe or blink the first time I heard it. Everyone else's testimonials suddenly made sense. Lee's words are desolate, desperate, disappointed, angry, hopeful, and sympathetic, and stripped free of the Vig/Wallace "magic," they leave a ring around the heart.

That's enough. Then you consider the inspiration for the song.

Per Lee, it refers to a "semi-famous artist friend." This could refer to many people, when you consider a jack-o-lotsa-trades like Mr. Ranaldo surely has stockpiled a tidy number of semi-famous artists friends by this point. It is tempting as a thousand virgins, though, to think that it's his bandmates that are the subjects of "Wish Fulfillment"; namely, the married ones.

I read the lyrics and I think of record company influence, the promise of something greater, of prominence, of money, of security, of the fact that while he's got likely as pure a heart as anyone who ever strapped a guitar onto their bodies, and I mean a soul so beyond reproach that even Courtney friggin' Love devoted space in her Lollapalooza diaries to how watching him play a guitar is a religious experience, face it: Thurston Moore always wanted to be a rock star. Kurt Cobain did too; I don't see what the point is in denying it. How hard is it to imagine Lee getting irritated with his bandmate talking about numbers and points and placement and product? ("It might be simple, it might be true/I might be overwhelmed by you.")

"I see you shaking in the light reading the headline news/The others they're not quite so bright/You want them to choose you/I could almost see your face tonight/Singing simple rhythm and blues." So I'm the only one who can see Kim and/or Thurston here? No way.

It is of course just as likely to be someone else. I hope we never find out. Because if the song itself wasn't intriguing enough, the controversy behind it being the only Lee-sung track on Dirty can make you break out the decoder ring.

That's for later.

"Sugar Kane"--Marilyn Monroe? Eh. I'd never fuck her. Too blonde! Also, dead.

This is Exhibit A why Dirty didn't bust out. Catchy as an ice cream truck making itself known, Thurston not being too esoteric, and using a "k" where normally a "c" would be. Fukcin' kool. But then they go and drag it out, drop it out, Sonic Youth cannot resist the allure of the squall.

("Kiss me like a frog/And turn me into flame." Beats a prince any day.)

"Orange Rolls, Angel's Spit"--My eyes once scanned the screen to see a fan referring to their "inexplicable affection" for this song. The hell? That sounds crazy explicable to me. How do you not dig this sepia-toned siesta of squeal? This ass-scouring separates the adults from the kiddies. It just got real up in Sesame Street. Count this, ya piece of shit. Today's program was brought to you by the letter Kiss my New York ass! Oh, irascible youth! Kim grits her teeth and so do I.

Kim did a phoner back in 1992 for Scene mag and described "Orange Rolls" thusly: "That was just about drugs...and...drug craziness." Why snort coke and get fucked in the ass when audio facsimiles exist? I'm sayin'.

"Youth Against Fascism"--Queasy alien pulse transmitted through what Edina Monsoon would obliviously call a "bleep machine," this is as bearably corny as a political song can get. ("His shit is outta luck"? Is it, Thurston? Is it really?) Notorious for featuring a cameo on guit-biscuit by DIY bottle washer Ian Mackaye, and hilarious for Mackaye not being able to identify his playing on the final version. This song kinda makes me sad, having lived through eight years of Bush II: Redneck Boogaloo.

I remember watching Tabitha Soren interview George Bush for MTV. It took place on the rear of a moving train. She didn't even make an attempt to throw him off. It totally would have been worth the instant death from a snipers bullet.

"Nic Fit"--Ian's brother Alex wrote this song as a member of the Untouchables. It's a raucous anti-smoking anthem so the ironing is cheesecake-delicious here. Thurston didn't want this put on the album proper (he hated his delivery, which is actually my favorite thing about the song) but Butch Vig really pushed for it. A key figure in the "Lee songs controversy."

"On the Strip"--It wasn't until David Browne's seminal bio Goodbye 20th Century that the inspiration for this song became common knowledge: Courtney Love. Her again?! I have typed that name way too much this review.

"Close your eyes and pretend/You're not at all like then."

"She's so hungry for a bite/Forgetting her friends fork and knife."

Wow, Kim nailed her. (One of millions.) It's true now as then. It's funny, when the protagonist of "On the Strip" was just some anonymous hypersexed waif I felt a deep sympathy for her and hoped that the coda to her sordid tale was not a sad one. Then later, after finding out her real-life inspiration I felt the song was just a too-good nod towards a rancid compilation of flesh, bone and fluid.

It's all about the disillusionment, man, in a way. The Nevermind cover baby grew up to be a Blink-182 fan, so what was it anyway?

"Chapel Hill"--Yet again a real-life homicide is the subject for a song. "Chapel Hill" peripherally deals with the murder of North Carolina independent bookseller Rob Sheldon, throwing well-deserved cups of egg nog at the then-alive and hating Senator Jesse Helms (imagining a scenario wherein the decrepit bastard is decimated in a pit at the Cats Cradle). The music is less vitriolic at first; the beginning is downright idyllic, and the arpeggiated chrous almost made me stop the CD to make sure poltergeists hadn't switched it on me.

"JC"--Kim's song for Joe Cole. Thurston's lyrics were very dude a dude remembrances of and transmissions to a lost buddy, but his wife's imagery is distinctly female, flying by in a haze of leafy orange and brown, conjuring up lustrous eyes set in a face that will one day be gone to history.

It may sound otherwise to other ears, but the guitars are not raging against the premature death of light. I can see the luminescence fade with each scrape of plastic on metal. This is grievous resignation. This is goodbye to one of the good ones...for good. Kim has shed enough tears over this and now it's our turn. (No dramatics; "JC" is one of three Sonic Youth songs that brought me to tears.)

"Purr"--This song is stroft. It's almost disorienting, going from the soul-stirring "JC" to Thurston's big ol' "WAAAAAAAAAAAHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" This is good dumb fun, an ode to I think you know with some unusually nimble guit-works happening. Plenty fuckin' rockin'.

"Creme Brulee"--The circumstances of this songs recording sound more than a bit like those times I travel out to Cali to hang with my peculiar pack of friends. Kim and Steve messing around with the actual words and melody, Thurston in the corner treating his amp like he just landed on Earth and has no idea what this thing does, and Lee off hanging back, capturing it all for history. You've probably never hung with me and my Cali pals, but um, spoiler alert: I'm Lee in this scenario.

All anybody seems to remember about this song is "Last night I dreamt I kissed Neil Young/If I was a boy I guess it would be fun." Oh shit, Kim G. with the zinger. Is there or has there ever been a solid homosexual fanbase for the man actually born Neil Young? Do they fantasize about kissing his rugged Canuck face while whispering about how, hey, he should do a comic book series for all his albums!?

You know what I really dig though? "Scrape scrape scrapin' melted cheese." Shit yes. Nachos. In the summertime.

No Sonic Youth album had as much discarded material worthy of final inclusion as Dirty. The original vinyl included "Stalker" and the singles featured b-sides that were killing every other bands best songs. No Sonic Youth b-side, ever, has incited the shitstorm that "Genetic" has, though.

Until the Browne book cleared it up, it was legend among the SY fanbase that Lee wanted both "Wish Fulfillment" and "Genetic" on the album, but was vetoed by Thurston and Kim, leading to Lee threatening to quit the band. The first two parts of that statement are true, but all parties involved who will go on record claim it never got that serious. Lee has gone on to say that "Genetic" may not have registered as instantly with Kim and Thurston and wasn't one of their songs to begin with, so they weren't very vested in pulling for it. Thurston for his part has wondered aloud if Lee doesn't take band decisions that don't work out in his favor a bit too personally.

Kim and Steve have never publicly said a word about it. Bless 'em.

Should "Genetic" have made the final cut? Yes. It's as radio-friendly a track as SY ever could make and still sound true to the SY spirit, and Lee sacrifices none of his introspective soul (this is arguably his most personal song, written as he was dealing with a divorce from his first wife). Also, it and "Rain King" show that the man has a way with saying the word "kid." But what do you take off?

The "resequence Dirty" challenge is one of my favorite games to play with other SY nerds (right up there with "Let's have a five minute conversation using nothing but quotes from The Year Punk Broke). The band themselves even indulged with the vinyl deluxe reissue which featured 19 songs over 4 slabs like so:

Swimsuit Issue
Theresa's Sound World
Drunken Butterfly
Wish Fulfillment
Sugar Kane
Orange Rolls Angel's Spit
Youth Against Fascism
Nic Fit
On the Strip
Chapel Hill
The Destroyed Room
Hendrix Necro
Creme Brulee

For the sake of the CD, 19 songs is ridiculous. This isn't a goddamn hip hop mixtape. Let's keep it at 15, just like the original. Cut "Nic Fit" (inconsequential), "Wish Fulfillment" (doesn't hold up to scrutiny), "The Destroyed Room" (simply would not fit) and "Stalker" (I would rather have a stalker than listen to that goddamn song again). Move the awesome, overlooked "Hendrix Necro" (one of Kim's greatest vocal turns ever, seriously; I wanna be her dogcatcher) to after "Youth Against Fascism" and Boog Powell surprise! A perfect Dirty.


  1. lee got shafted again with genetic on the dirty vinyl. fucking A. agreed that stalker is not worthy and the demo even more so. genetic and no stalker...

    lovin the reviews. read em all and looking forward to the rest.

    much appreciated mam!

    themawt71 from syg