I’m not here to talk about my life under the influence of Sonic Youth, because believe me, I could go on for hours and hours on that subject. I’ll just begin with what I have said before — and I feel comfortable reiterating here — Sonic Youth is the most influential and important band of the last quarter-century.
Why they are so important and influential is the hard part to figure out. It could be argued that, like The Velvet Underground before them, the very existence of a band as adventurous as Sonic Youth helped spawn an entire new generation of underground groups. Considering they have not been an “indie” band for almost twenty years now (they were one of the first bands of the “alternative” wave, along with groups such as R.E.M. and Dinosaur Jr. their next album will be a return to an independent label, Matador records), it is pretty amazing to look at the amount of influence they still command among indie-rock purists. Continuously putting out one solid release after another, they have managed to continue writing some really catchy songs without coming close to producing anything that resembles a pop record. After twenty years the group is thriving and has somehow escaped the tag of “cult” band. Somehow, Sonic Youth have been able to defy every musical trend of the last quarter-century and still stay relevant.
Noise is a compilation of stories inspired by the band, each story prompted by the title of a song chosen from Sonic Youth’s extensive catalog. Does that sound quite possibly like an awful idea? Absolutely. If done wrong it could be an ugly affair, a pathetic attempt at unnecessary crossover appeal for a band that doesn’t need to solidify their legacy. But in the collection edited by Peter Wild, twenty-one writers show off the influence the band has had on them and in effect, they successfully establish an entirely new way of looking at the work of Sonic Youth. I apprehensively cracked Noise open for the first time knowing that, while I do want music and literature to work better together, many times the exercise ends up just plain ugly.
Skipping all formalities, I went directly to Wild’s own contribution, “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style”. It was in the preface where I gained a clearer understanding of Wild’s thinking. “I was listening to the song and the words and the guitar squeal were pinging about like phantoms and somehow or another, the story you’re about to read bubbled up…” This seems to me the best summary of almost every Sonic Youth album ever made, as well as nearly any project undertaken by members of the group that took the MC5’s idea of incorporating the free-jazz aesthetic of Sun Ra and Albet Ayler to a whole new level.
They just bubble up.
Reading through the rest of Noise, I got a sense that most of the writers actually have a pretty good idea where Sonic Youth have been coming from all along. Whether it be the view of America as the cold and dark place it can be through the eyes of an outsider (“On the Strip” by Rachel Trezise), the nostalgia for something lost (“Unmade Bed” by Christopher Coake), or simply the strange and surreal (“Kool Thing; Or Why I want to Fuck Patty Hearst” by Tom McCarthy), the basic formula for the book works very well, and oddly enough its slip-ups function almost as commentary on why exactly Sonic Youth has stopped short of the mainstream status reserved for less-adventurous rock gods; the stories maybe a little bit too edgy for some people, but really is that such a bad thing? Nowhere is this highlighted as perfectly as in the story “Dirty Boots” by Samuel Ligon. In it, Ligon plays within the same transgressive realms in which Sonic Youth dabbled during the dank avant-underground of early 1980’s NYC, alongside visionaries like filmmaker/photographer Richard Kern and the musician/writer Lydia Lunch. It’s a story that could fit alongside the group’s 1985 video for the song “Death Valley ’69”, which just so happened to receive its direction from the above mentioned Mr. Kern and co-starred Ms. Lunch. “Dirty Boots” is a visceral outsider tale that takes its influence from the earlier works of the band which tended toward the more chaotic and less refined side of their tracks.
I imagine Mr. Wild had some headaches putting Noise together. It’s a tricky task in itself compiling a successful book about music, but a series of fictional stories based on the music of a band as complex as Sonic Youth is a totally different story. The group of writers amassed for this project have defied my early assumptions that this was a truly bad idea, and have put forth a narrative full of the characteristic improvisation and free-association that has been the benchmark of Sonic Youth for all this time.