[27 August 2007]
Never mind the periodic guitar changes between songs at Sonic Youth’s Brooklyn performance of seminal 1988 album Daydream Nation. No amount of guitar swapping could have broken the anticipation I felt when, after “Cross the Breeze” (popularly known as “Track 4”), a roadie emerged from the wings to hand Thurston Moore a drumstick. I know Sonic Youth is an experimental band, and, really, nothing is off-limits when they take the stage, but with only one drumstick and “Track 5” (“Eric’s Trip”) on deck, there was no way Moore was going to replace Steve Shelley on drums. Good thing he didn’t try. As Lee Renaldo began to sing/chant “I can’t see anything at all, all I see is me,” Moore did what he does best: wail. The fingers on his right hand made a strumming blur, as the ones on his left worked the drumstick up and down the guitar’s neck—it was as if he was trying to saw the damn thing off.
Like fellow New Yorkers the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth are a band that you’re told to like long before you actually do. Which, if you think about it, is about right. Few people are compelled to buy a Sonic Youth album after seeing one of their videos, hearing them on the radio, or identifying them from a Volkswagen commercial. Maybe the band has moved some units by opening for the likes of Neil Young, Pearl Jam, or REM, but not that many. The hippest among us have, perhaps, inquired at the used record store when the clerk—High Fidelity-style—decides to spin Evol or Sister in an effort to win converts. The likeliest scenario, however, is that most people discover Sonic Youth when chasing the influences of other acts. Eventually the sway of those Pixies and Nirvana albums becomes strong enough that one seeks the source. The bargain bin, as usual, functions as an enabler, its stock of A Thousand Leaves and NYC Ghosts & Flowers evidence that those before us have also felt the call to seek out origins.
But those stocked shelves and $7 stickers often offer disappointment. It doesn’t take long for one to realize that Thurston Moore’s voice doesn’t come close to approximating Frank Black’s primal screams, or that Sonic Youth’s influence on Nirvana is more about the aesthetics of dissonance than the allure of a pop hook. That said, the budding music fan, curious enough about Sonic Youth to seek them out only to be initially underwhelmed, would do well to return to them, say, 10 years down the road. After all, this is a band better appreciated with mature ears. And—for the love of Pete—when you do decide to grant Sonic Youth a much-deserved second chance, please bypass those used offerings and throw down your $18 for a copy of Daydream Nation (recently available in a re-mastered deluxe edition). That way, you’ll know that if you still fail to get it, the deficiency is in you.
If you haven’t been to a concert recently, you may not know that you have as much of a chance of seeing an album played in full as you do catching a “greatest hits” show. In the last year and a half, Patti Smith has galloped through Horses, Lou Reed has revisited Berlin, and Roger Waters has explored Dark Side of the Moon. Now comes word that Iggy and the Stooges are going to perform Funhouse in London. And, in what may very well be the capstone of this trend, Lucinda Williams is setting up shop for five nights on each American coast to play a different album from her oeuvre in its entirety (get your tickets now).
Initially, I thought this movement toward (literal) concert albums was a compelling case for the significance of the album as a genre. I pined for the likes of Sgt. Pepper’s, Pet Sounds, and What’s Going On? as I realized that the only record released in the last ten years (or so) that deserved such treatment was OK Computer. But when I started thinking less romantically and more critically, the real impetus for what could be perceived as these live gimmicks became clear. At their worst, these events are marketing ploys. Smart money says a Dark Side of the Moon laser show would draw a bigger crowd than a Roger Waters solo set that ignores the old material.
More forgivingly, but in the same vein, these shows can also be considered as relatively harmless indulgences in nostalgia—some people enjoy visiting their old teachers, even after they’ve graduated. The danger here, of course, is that exercises in nostalgia often backfire. Trips down memory lane are rarely without their bumps. At the risk of picking on Mr. Waters again, when inflated farm animals began circling in the rafters at a recent show at Madison Square Garden—a la Pink Floyd in their prime—I found myself wondering why this was allegedly so mind blowing. And then I realized the answer: drugs.
That’s not to say the album-as-concert is not without its merits. At their best, these shows celebrate landmarks. Rather than demonstrating a recording’s fixedness in a particular place and time, these concerts make a case for the timelessness of their content. When Patti Smith emerges at BAM and sings, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” that smack you feel stings all the more because it has the strength of 20 years behind it. That her hair is a little grayer and her voice a little rougher only adds to the impact.
Additionally, these shows help contextualize their respective artists’ bodies of work. Confronted with Reed’s Berlin again—especially in a situation as interactive as a live show—we are invited to consider where Reed had been before that recording and where he has been since. Similarly, I suspect Williams’ five-night stand is as much about visiting touchstones in her career as providing more opportunities to praise each work individually.
Which brings us back to Sonic Youth: I am happy to report that their aforementioned recent performance of Daydream Nation is of the “half-full” variety. During the past year, I have seen the band perform a handful of these songs at different shows, and, yes, there’s something to be said for the swell of disbelief when they opened last summer’s Brooklyn concert with “Teen Age Riot”, or when, at Webster Hall in February, I realized just before the song kicked in properly that those opening strands were indeed from “Silver Rocket”. In short—and to state the obvious—there’s something to be said for the unpredictability of the live experience. Unlike the album, we don’t know what song comes next. That aspect of a concert is among its highest delights: Perpetual anticipation and a patience that will be rewarded.
However, so too is there something to be said for an expected pleasure that delivers on its promise. I know Kim Gordon is going to kick off the Brooklyn performance of Daydream Nation with that half-dreamy, half-bored voice of hers. She’s going to say, “You’re it. No, you’re it.” Her voice is going to be just under the music, and I’m not really sure what she’ll be saying there for a while, but eventually it will be “Spirit desire,” though it will sound more like “Sweet desire.” A minute later, the drums will have carried us through the introduction, there will be a slight pause, the guitars will return faster this time, and with more distortion, and then we’re off and running for the next 70 minutes.
I know this is how the night is going to begin. There is no mystery here. I’ve heard this album a hundred times. And, sure enough, the band enters as expected. They assume their familiar positions onstage. Only a banner that features the lit candle from the cover of the album is unexpected. Moore begins fiddling with his guitar, that teasing opening, as scripted, as promised. Thirteen seconds in, Gordon, on cue, steps to the microphone: “You’re it,” she says. And I get chills. It’s the musical equivalent of an athlete calling his or her shot. Sonic Youth has just delivered the only thing better than an unforeseen joy: they have delivered the expected in a way that feels like a gift.
This is it. This is the show. Predictable songs dutifully following one another, each one notable for its paradoxical ability both to hold its place and to be more than a placeholder. I was particularly impressed by the way in which “Providence”, long one of my favorite Sonic Youth songs, was handled: more ambience, really, than song, “Providence” combines the patented Sonic Youth thunder-like guitar sound with a crackling piano recording and a message left on Thurston Moore’s answering machine, presumably by Mike Watt, the former Minuteman who was then a member of fIREHOSE. The song tells us that the call is coming from a phone booth in Providence, Rhode Island (hence, the song’s title), and we know, too, that Watt, sounding eerily like Gene Hackman, is really distraught that Moore has yet to “find his shit.”
“We were wondering if you looked in that trashcan,” Watt says. “When we threw out that trash, man, was the bag in your hand? Did you dump it?” It’s a found song, one I was afraid they’d omit because of its slightness, and because so much of it, even in a studio setting, is prerecorded. But the track listing for Daydream Nation lists “Providence” as “Track 8”, so there it is: Moore replicating the thunderous guitar while approaching the amplifier and twiddling some knobs to produce the sounds of both the ominous piano and a familiar voice. “Watt here,” it said, as the thunder continued to roll.
At two minutes and 40 seconds, “Providence” is the shortest song on the album, and I would venture to guess it’s one of the shortest songs Sonic Youth has ever recorded. Its function is almost entirely to provide a bridge from “Hey Joni” to “Candle”, two of the album’s standout tracks. It has almost no business ever being played outside of the context of this album, which made its inclusion on this night—predictable though it was—all the more impressive.
The band did eventually stray from Daydream Nation. As if to remind the audience that they have done quite well for themselves since 1988, thankyouverymuch, the encore consisted of a selection of songs from their most recent release, Rather Ripped, an album that holds its own in a long list of Sonic Youth masterpieces. The always-scintillating “Incinerate” got the night’s final set rolling; “Reena” gave Gordon her finale on vocals; and the band sent everyone home with “Pink Steam”, a seven-minute, mostly instrumental track that ranks among their finest.
The encore suggested that, though there’s ample reason to celebrate the accomplishments of the past, we would do well to also recognize the achievements of the present. While the night was restricted to choices from only those two records, it’s worth noting that there are at least 10 other Sonic Youth studio albums that reward multiple listens. There’s no denying the greatness of Daydream Nation, but I’ll be among the first in line when they’re ready to revisit their so-called lesser albums, as well: when they’re ready to play the entirety of Goo, Dirty, Murray Street, or even a perpetual bargain binner like Sonic Nurse. Truth is, whatever they want to play, whenever they want to play it, with all apologies to Tom Joad, I’ll be there.