Iconic Youth

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.

13 Responses

  1. And this was published by a
    And this was published by a major publishing house.

    Imagine that.

    Does Sonic Yawn play the Funeral March song?

    I will say that any way a write can get his stuff published in a major publication is OK.

    Even weird gimmicks.

    I mean, when I heard of this book a few weeks ago I thought it was a joke. Or maybe the twilight zone or bizarro world or something.

    And major publishers wonder why they are going bankrupt.

  2. Well, I had a sequence of
    Well, I had a sequence of haiku entitled ‘A Thousand Leaves’ published in RAW NerVZ Haiku around 2001, I believe. I later included it in my 2004 chapbook New England Country Farmhouse. One of the haiku even made mention of hoarfrost. The haiku in my chapbook all made reference in some degree to Laird Koenig’s old 1974 novel, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane (film starring Jodie Foster, 1976). I always saw a connexion–right down to the album cover–between SY’s A Thousand Leaves double album (1998) and that novel/film, so I had to include the sequence in question. Thus I’m not in any position to condemn a collection like Noise. Although, I think a collection of poetry based on SY numbers would have proven more fruitful–maybe a little too fruitful, actually.

    One other thing: Please, PLEASE cool it with the Velvet Underground references when discussing Sonic Youth–enough already! The Velvets were just one of about a dozen major rock acts from that period which proved incredibly seminal and influential. The major reason why they’ve continued to get the press is Lou’s perpetual whining about their not making it in the ’60s. Actually, if one looks at it objectively, Sonic Youth have achieved about five times more on every level than what The VU did. And The Velvets weren’t the only act from that period which had an impact on Sonic Youth–The Pink Floyd, The Doors, the Detroit bands, free jazz, and even the era’s bubble gum groups all had as much influence on SY as what Lou Reed & Co. did–just listen to the albums.

  3. I think The Fall probably
    I think The Fall probably just nudge SY to second place. Mark E cottoned on to SY’s early pillaging of The Fall’s sound but they’re definetely up there. Who was it in SY that published a book of poetry? Any good?

  4. I’m a Velvets freak (as my
    I’m a Velvets freak (as my t-shirts sometimes prove) but have never been able to get into SY’s music. Maybe it’s Lou Reed’s love of tuneful pop melody that I miss. However, I have a lot of respect for the members of the band and the way they conduct themselves. Archie, it’s Lee Ranaldo who wrote a poetry chapbook called “Road Movies”. I also have a copy of a book Thurston Moore wrote, published by Water Row, I think it was called “Alabama Wildman”. I think the whole gang is pretty literary.

  5. Hey Archie,

    I believe both
    Hey Archie,

    I believe both Thurston and Lee have both published poetry. I like Thurstons stuff.

    Also, I agree with you about The Fall, and find it funny that Wild has also edited a book of stories based on songs by them.

  6. Quite honestly, I just hate
    Quite honestly, I just hate the idea. I think I’d rather have a book based on Guitar Wolf songs, I’m bored with all the literature/college art crap/R.E.M. emotional/eat organic green tea crap.
    Sorry, the whole idea reeks of college coffee house art house stupid, whatever, I guess you get the idea of the feeling this book gives me. It’s shit. Just like Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground (somebody please tell Lou Reed he sucks as a musician and that he should become a full time writer like someone should have told him after Metal Machine Music).
    Now, if someone has any idea on how to translate Guitar Wolf’s music into a work of literature, that’s something that would kick serious amounts of ass.

  7. Don’t get me wrong—I love The
    Don’t get me wrong—I love The Velvet Underground’s actual records (and yes, including the much-dismissed Squeeze); I just can’t stand most of the people who can’t shut up about them, and the way the band is perpetually placed on a compensatory pedestal (Does Lou thrive on pity or something?). Canadian television personality and novelist Daniel Richler (the late, great Mordecai Richler’s son) once said that The Velvet Underground would be last on his list of people he’d want to have at his dinner table, more or less placing them (and much of the Warhol crowd) in the same self-important New York snob category as Susan Sontag, Richard Avedon and those ‘ladies who lunch’.

    As for The Fall, I’ve dug a few of ‘their’ numbers over the years, but I’ve never understood the big deal that’s kicked up about ‘them’ (i.e., Mark E. Smith) by a certain percentage of the population. I would say that Smith is more comparable to Big Black than what he is to Sonic Youth.

    As for Sonic Youth themselves, I’d say that they’re the only band that’s come along since The Clash and Joy Division who automatically go on the list of Great Ones without any pause for further consideration. Their discography and the length and breadth of their accomplishments are both enormous.

  8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?
    The song “One Step Closer” came off Austin’s Poison 13’s First You Dream, Then You Die album.
    “Grip on my Heart” is also at the above, along with “Hellbound Train.”
    Poison 13 was credited by the Austin, TX critic Michael Corcoran with being the grandfathers of grunge.
    There is a really hot chick speaking-singing and doing the pogo here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4l6hpV4NrR0&feature=related
    I had only heard of Sonic youth in name before tonight.
    For rock ‘n roll literature, my first pick would be Sugerman/ Hopkins’ No One Gets Out Alive http://www.amazon.com/One-Here-Gets-Out-Alive/dp/0446602280 which I enjoyed when I was 19.

  9. What about early Frank Zappa,
    What about early Frank Zappa, Ray Davies?

    I saw a film by members of Sonic Youth. It was like a cart
    not much.

  10. The difference with The Fall,
    The difference with The Fall, apart from whether their songs or Sonic Youth’s best capture the Zeitgeist, is that M.E.S. writes, and he’s arguably the best poet of the last few decades, as well as leading the band that best captures the Zeitgeist. And that’s why their fiction anthology came first.

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