After an introduction that owes as much to Wallace Stevens as it does to Michael Azerrad — the intro is called “Grown-Up Riot; or, Seven Ways to Start an Introduction to a Book about Sonic Youth” — David Browne’s excellent new book about the band, Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth, settles into a tone that feels more like fiction than non. “On the night they met”, he writes, “the summer when it all began, the first thing he noticed about her was her height”.
Though simple, this rich opening line performs multiple functions: one, it introduces two of the key players; two, it acknowledges a recurring theme, the theme of things just being on the precipice of really beginning; and, three, it offers a literary wink to readers in the know, for as those who picked up this book based on its spine are well aware, it is the “he” of that first sentence, not the she, who is noteworthy because of his height.
Having led with the boy/girl story, Browne immediately fleshes out the time and the place that this courtship began: 1980, New York City, Chelsea, West 24th Street, to be exact. He describes the club, Plugg, as being “tucked away in a two-story, redbrick brownstone squashed between two larger buildings” and writes that “[e]ven in a city that often felt ravaged and forlorn, the locale was remote and isolated — the last stand for anyone who wanted to make a stand”.
And here, barely one page into Chapter One, this question of “fiction” or “nonfiction” fades. Never mind what is fact, what is memory, and what is imagined, Browne’s book attempts to trace the origins of what amounts to a cultural phenomenon, which places it pretty firmly in the camp of mythology.
I have a hunch that Browne himself would protest this charge. He is, after all, the man who astutely writes in his seventh of Seven Ways to Start an Introduction about Sonic Youth, “ultimately theirs is a story that has less to do with rock overindulgence and more to do with the reality of life”. He makes much of the negotiations among work, career, and family; he writes about “that balance between integrity and the demands of living and growing older”. And he’s right to focus on these concerns that keep even us nine-to-fivers awake at night.
The book features a wedding, traditional even. There is time off from work because of children. There is being out-priced from the city. Yes, there are drugs and, yes, there is internal strife — Sonic Youth is a rock-n-roll band, after all — but Browne follows the band’s lead and treats these aspects of their history with moderation and judiciousness, respectively. Compared to the likes of, say, eventual label-mates like Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana, Sonic Youth’s story is downright mundane.
Yet, despite his protestations, surely even Browne is aware that everyday people rarely make interesting subjects for biographies. There is a reason why he was drawn to write about Sonic Youth, and it has nothing to do with them being ordinary.
As the promotional materials are eager to acknowledge, the great coup of Browne’s book is the amount of access he was granted. And, indeed, much has been made about the band’s “unprecedented” participation with the book. However, the fact that Sonic Youth cooperated with Browne is slightly mitigated by their willingness to, for example, appear on such TV shows as The Simpsons and Gilmore Girls. This is not intended as a knock on prime-time exposure (who among us wouldn’t want to chum around for an afternoon with Lorelai and Rory in Stars Hollow?); rather, this is just to say that sitting down for an interview with Thurston, Kim, Lee, and Steve is not exactly like being granted an audience with J.D. Salinger. They may not be publicity hounds, but neither are they publicity shy.
No, that Browne got the band to sit down is less impressive than the honesty he was able to elicit when they did. Sure, the years between make such honesty seem more like thoughtfulness, but their responses are, at times, refreshingly frank. Here is Shelly remarking on what Browne refers to as “the troubled Goo sessions”: “It was our fault … It just got out of hand. We should have just released the demos. It would have saved us a lot of money”. Even more interesting, Renaldo on the residual hurt left over from having his songs omitted from Dirty: “I just felt like, ‘If you guys don’t want my voice in the mix, then I won’t bother singing’. The songs always got divvied out. And maybe I didn’t volunteer to sing any on that record [Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star]”.
The “maybe” in that last line is important. On more than one occasion — occasions that often deal with business associates, interestingly enough — the band’s collective memory is not exactly in synch, a point that only further reminds us that we are reading a mythology, not a chronicle. Fortunately for Browne, his sit-downs with the band comprise only a small part of his research. Contributors also include former members of the band (they went through drummers like Spinal Tap before finally landing Shelley), executives from both major and independent labels, peers from their No Wave days, collaborators, filmmakers, actors, art teachers, guitar techs, record producers, and the requisite assortment of miscellaneous friends.
Of course, their friends/sphere of influence include(s) (or included) Mark Arm, Spike Jonze, Kurt Cobain, Mike Watt, Lydia Lunch, Harmony Korine, Sofia Coppola, Todd Haynes, Michael Stipe, Gus Van Sant, Cat Power, Danny Elfman, and Gogol Bordello, among others. The sheer number of boldface names that has entered Sonic Youth’s orbit supports Browne’s claim that “[t]heirs is not just the tale of a band but of an era, community, and sensibility that has infiltrated and altered the culture”.
At one point, I wanted to applaud when Browne connected Sonic Youth to the popular Apple ads that pit the hip Mac user against the square who prefers the PC (in a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of way I further connected Sonic Youth to Bruce Willis via Die Hard 4, which also stars the hip Mac user from the commercials; there’s no telling where that could lead). Thumbing through the index alone is a virtual Who’s Who of alternative culture from the past quarter century. Look, there’s Beck! And there’s Hole! And, oh my, is that Pavement? Forget any talk about the coolest kids in school. Sonic Youth are the coolest kids in the town. Their rolodex so choice that Chloë Sevigny was their babysitter.
Many of these Sonic Satellites find their way to the Acknowledgments page, and it is this copious amount of research that renders Browne an expert not only about the band but also about the scene. Indeed, Goodbye 20th Century is never so alive as it is when it lingers in the time and the place where both the band and the book begin: Manhattan in the early 1980s. Though right between the two, this Manhattan leans toward the grit of Midnight Cowboy rather than the innocence of Enchanted. New York is a dangerous place — Shelley moved to New Jersey after being mugged in Brooklyn — and the recording space on the Lower East Side came cheap probably because it shared its off-the-beaten-path locale with prostitutes and junkies.
Dilapidated apartments were turned into venues where bands named things like “Teenage Jesus and the Jerks” played. The Swans contended for the Most Aggressively Dissonant trophy (and won a few early rounds), and if you were lucky enough to play the Noise Festival at White Columns — the museum just below the Village that sometimes hosted gigs — you might just catch John Belushi poking his head in or the Beastie Boys whining that the audience was too old. Jim Jarmusch was a fixture, as was Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The scene, as Jack Kerouac would say, was jumping, and the sense is that Sonic Youth was just a piece — albeit a defining and enduring piece — of a much larger thing that was going on. To his credit, Browne resists stating the obvious, so I’ll go ahead and do it for him: Sonic Youth’s relationship with New York City during this period was symbiotic. The disreputable (and, let’s face it, romantic) allure of the city was only enhanced by the fact that the sonic assault you felt in the club mirrored the very real one you might feel on your way home; and, in return, one can’t help but think that “Death Valley ‘69” — though written about a West Coast massacre — could only have been written on the bus uptown.
Given this intimacy of band to city/city to band, it’s no wonder that the book loses some of its punch when Sonic Youth transcends the borough that spawned them. Forays abroad retain some of the vibrancy of those formative years — especially a show in London, memorable because of a meltdown by the band that the British press absolutely lapped up — but the book sags for a long stretch as they outgrow the indie scene and search for a major label. In fairness, this lull may be a result of the subject matter rather than its treatment: We can root for a band to make it, for a band like Sonic Youth to find the right audience, but it’s hard to pull for a power lunch to go well or for them to win the affection of a crowd that isn’t deserving of them in the first place (even if Browne suggests that they longed for such recognition).
Furthermore, once the band settles with Geffen’s DGC, the structure of the book becomes predictable. Essentially, its rhythms mimic the band’s own: in the studio to hash out new songs, a discussion of how the finished product demonstrates their continual musical development, an examination of the degree to which their personal lives are influencing the work, then tour. Then back to the studio. Repeat. Though this stretch is more than a simple catalogue of music reviews, the momentum is weak enough that a reader wouldn’t lose too much by just using the index to learn more about his or her favorite Sonic Youth album.
Thankfully, when Browne does write about the music he writes about it well. As I was reading, I was reminded of Elvis Costello’s old line about rock journalism: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” I admit that I sometimes share this attitude, particularly when music reviews overexert themselves in an effort to precisely capture a particular sound with words. “Just listen to the disc,” I often want to say, and I want to say it even louder when it comes to a band like Sonic Youth that resists easy description.
But Browne is up to the challenge. Most impressively, he is up to the challenge in a way that is accessible both for fans that are musically inclined and for fans that are not. Witness his description of the sound they achieved on Goo:
With Shelley’s drums more prominent in the mix than before, the rhythms swung and shook. From the rubbery punk groove of “Mary-Christ” to the multipart pummel of “Cinderella’s Big Score” to the way the stuttering guitars introducing “Kool Thing” gave way to snarling thrash and whiplash drums, the band had never before packed such aural wallop. Chuck D.’s fleeting cameo in “Kool Thing” didn’t make for the historic rap-rock merger the song portended, but the track was a miracle nevertheless: Both wailing and seductive, it merged the brawniest hook of the band’s career with some of their most wild-eyed, runaway-train playing.
Obviously, he relies more on adjectives than on technical jargon, which broadens the passage’s appeal. I understand that there is a level of appreciation of Sonic Youth that only a musician can really dig. And parts of this book are for such readers — the sections that talk about the unique ways in which they tune their guitars, for example — but so too is Goodbye 20th Century written with the fan who just wants to listen to, rather than to play or, worse yet, to study, the music.
The problem is that right now such fans have no shortage of Sonic Youth goodies from which to choose. Their latest “SYR” release, a series of “experimental and mostly instrumental” recordings, is available now on their Web site. Gordon’s side project, Free Kitten, just released a new record; Renaldo continues to play in Text of Light, an experimental group of his own; Shelley helms his own record company and drums for any number of groups as they blast through town; Moore’s most recent solo album isn’t even a year old, and he’s just released a book of his own (a book of photographs called No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980).
Oh, and did I mention that their upcoming greatest hits collection, Hits Are for Squares, will be available soon at a Starbucks near you (what was that earlier line about not being publicity shy)? To say nothing of their continual touring (tickets for the free Fourth of July show at Battery Park are going for $60 a pop on Craiglist), their mighty contributions to the I’m Not There soundtrack, and Juno, for God’s sake, Juno!
Of a relative media blitz that followed Murray Street, Renaldo says, “Having seen the industry change at that point, we all started to feel like we needed to do what we could to keep our presence out there, if we were going to survive … We had to think up alternative ways to keep ourselves visible. We had to do what we could to make our presence felt”. But with so much presence out there, fans are forced to make choices, which is to say that asking the casual listener to shell out $26 for a book that is clearly written with devotees in mind may be a bit much. However, for those devotees — many of whom undoubtedly thought their Sonic Youth library could never be improved upon — Goodbye 20th Century delivers the only thing you really want from a rock-n-roll biography: it enhances your listening experience.