Teach Us How to Fail
a Sonic Youth playlist
[This piece originally appeared in Witchsong in 2015, but that site has long since gone dark. I was just thinking about it again, and decided to share it here.]
“Sonic Youth? The people are like 50 years old…Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore are divorced. And you’re just the orphans they left behind.”
—Skylar Tiffany Thomas, from Portlandia’s “Take Back MTV” episode
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The school I attended from grades 6 to 8 was a middle school and high school, combined. It was also an alternative school; meaning that it was part of the public school system, but you had to apply to get in. When I went there, in the ‘90s, it was alternative in the musical and subcultural sense, as well. The high school had two different types of popular kids. There were the type of kids you’d expect to be popular—the ones who dressed like they’d been fashion consultants for Clueless, who were upper-middle-class or just looked like they were, who liked pop music and parties. The other group of popular kids were the ones who would have been outcasts at other schools—the punks, the goths, the indie kids, the stoners, the skaters. They were the ones I looked up to. I had no desire to be like the typical popular kids, but the ones with funny haircuts and facial piercings and obscure taste in music were my role models—and it was because of them that I discovered Sonic Youth.
“Teen Age Riot” (from Daydream Nation)
In the spring of 1994, one of those high school hip kids (an alterna/goth/punk grrrl I had an enormous crush on) made me a mix tape. That tape was my introduction to a lot of great music, including Sonic Youth—but it took another year before I became a true Sonic Youth fan. In the spring of 1995, I saw a couple of the hip kids wearing Washing Machine t-shirts. I recognized those shirts as having to do with Sonic Youth. Not only were they on that tape, but I’d read about them in enough fanzines and music mags to have a vague idea of what they were about. I rode my bike downtown, to the one and only independent record shop, and I found the Sonic Youth albums. I stood, staring at them for a few minutes, trying to decide which one I should purchase. I chose Daydream Nation because of the title and the cover image—I loved that lone candle flickering in that hazy room, and half my life was spent daydreaming. “Great choice,” the record shop owner said, and he was right. I got it home and put it on my turntable, the needle dropped into the groove and it was a “Teen Age Riot,” starting with a hypnotic guitar and Kim Gordon intoning: You’re it, no you’re it.
It’s all jangle and spirit desire and We Will Fall, until the 1:23 mark when the pace picks up. Then it’s rock and roll, but still so pretty. So dreamy! There is, of course, the instrumental break that occurs just before the five-minute mark and continues for a minute and a half, but despite that, and despite the fact that the song is seven minutes long, I think it’s the most accessible track on the album. It’s noisy, but it’s a gorgeous, joyous noise, and Thurston Moore’s charmingly petulant voice makes me wanna dance while I daydream about a teenage riot to get me out of bed right now.
“Bull in the Heather” (from Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star)
Just like that, I was a Sonic Youth fangirl. No longer was I content to try and be as cool as the indie kids at my school, no, I was gonna try and be as cool as Thurston and Kim (to say nothing of Lee and Steve). I saw a picture of Thurston in some mag, and he was wearing a pair of maroon low-top Chuck Taylors, so I bought myself a pair. I vowed that one day I would have an electric guitar, and I would make weird, noisy music of my own. (And I eventually did, and it was terrible and great.) And I bought my second Sonic Youth album, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.
“Bull In the Heather” was one of the songs that grrrl put on the tape for me. Since I’d already heard it, it was the track that stood out. At this same time, I was discovering riot grrrl, and I saw the video for this song on MTV (on a rerun of 120 Minutes, if I recall correctly)—and Kathleen Hanna was in it!
The song is absolute discord for the first 15 seconds, but the rest is so much summer pop. Well, summer pop turned on its head. Summer pop with guitar screeches and Kim’s signature vocal style—bored and breathy, like: “I’m going to sound like I don’t care, like I’m so cool, but that is belied by the intensity of what I’m saying.” Tell me that you need to, sorely. Time to tell your love story. I can’t hear this song, now, without the video playing in my head. 10, 20, I see Kim in her white dress lounging in a messy bedroom; 30, 40, there’s Kathleen, alternating between looking little-girl cute in pigtails and doing goofy jumprope jives, and sensuously swaying in red lipstick and a pink corset.
“Little Trouble Girl” (from Washing Machine)
Those kids at my school wore Washing Machine t-shirts before the album was even released. Sonic Youth made them as tour merch, because for a brief time they considered changing the name of the band to Washing Machine. When their manager (and, like, everyone else) advised them against that, they continued to sell the shirts to pique interest in their upcoming album. It was this album’s fault, in a sense, that I got into Sonic Youth, so of course I bought it as soon as it came out.
“Little Trouble Girl” was, is, and always will be my favorite track from Washing Machine.
It starts off sounding like a warped record, and then Kim Gordon and Kim Deal start singing. It’s like a ‘60s girl group number gone off the rails into darkness. Kim Deal’s creampuff voice, crooning: If you want me to, I will be the one that is always good, and you’ll love me, too. The song got to me, because I could relate. I’d spent my whole life living under the crushing pressure of being a gifted child and a good girl. But you’ll never know what I feel inside—that I’m really bad. Little trouble girl. And then the spoken interlude: Remember, mother? We were close. Very, very close. (Very, very close, a la The Shangri-Las’ response to the question “Well, how does he dance?”) Kim Gordon speaks of the dangers of desire, about how a boy can be a catalyst for a good girl to go bad, and all the while, Kim Deal is in the background singing sha-la-la. The song is both sweet and unsettling—I have noticed, over the years, that there is something unsettling about most of Kim Gordon’s songs.
“Youth Against Fascism” (from Dirty)
I am not terribly familiar with this album. I’ve owned it for a long time, but it is the one I’ve listened to the least often. Except for one particular track—“Youth Against Fascism.”
I loved it then and I love it now because it’s probably the most straight-up punk sounding Sonic Youth tune. I loved it then, and I love it now, because of the attitude. Another Nazi attack, a skinhead is cracked. My blood is black! It’s the song I love, driven by the fuzzed-out bass and the pounding drums, but of course with the wild guitars screaming and fighting over the top. It’s like, “let’s pogo while we kick the racists in the face.” It’s like, We’re banging pots and pans to make you understand – we gonna bury you, man.
“My Friend Goo” (from Goo)
Goo has, in my opinion, the best album cover of any Sonic Youth full length. I mean, it was drawn by Raymond Pettibon, and based off a paparazzi photo of Maureen Hindley and David Smith, witnesses in the infamous Moors Murders case. So it’s got a ‘60s Bonnie and Clyde vibe, as interpreted by a punk artist. Goo also has “My Friend Goo.”
Damn, this song is so good it sticks like glue. It’s buzzing, it’s weird, it’s rock and god damn roll. It’s a bratty playground rhyme about the kind of girl I wanted to be friends with. She can play the drum set, too. And the boys say: “Hey, Goo, what’s new?” My friend Goo just goes: “P.U.” It’s a song about the kind of girl I wanted to be.
“(I Got A) Catholic Block” (from Sister)
Sister is a strange album. I think it’s one of the best Sonic Youth albums, but I don’t listen to it from start to finish very often. There are a couple tracks on it that I’m always in the mood for. One is the excellent cover of Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart,” the other is “(I Got A) Catholic Block.”
It alternates between cacophony (shrieking voices, squealing guitars) and a relentless riff that pulls you along, pulls you apart. It feels sort of claustrophobic, like you’re stuck inside your Catholic-blocked head. Anyone who was raised Catholic, or had a Catholic influence in their childhood, and later left it behind, can relate: I got a Catholic block, it’s around my head. I got a Catholic block, and it’s blood orange red. At the same time, it’s fun and sexy, in a strange sort of way. It pulls you apart then puts you back together, traps you then lets you go, over and over again.
“Society is a Hole” (from Bad Moon Rising)
Bad Moon Rising is my least favorite Sonic Youth full length. Most of the tracks are so dissonant, so pretentious, that I hear it and think: “God, were they trying to make it unlistenable?” I know, I know, Sonic Youth were a noise band, or a No Wave band, or whatever, but I need some melody with my noise. There are a couple tracks I really like, one of them being a track that goes against everything I just said.
“Society Is A Hole” starts off nearly unlistenable; an aural cheese grater, of sorts. But you keep listening because it’s Sonic Youth, and you know that sometimes they bury their gems under layers of grotesque sound. After a while, you begin to like the bell-like riff that runs through it, and then there’s Thurston, chant-singing: Society is a hole. And pretty soon you’ve been mesmerized by the creepy drone. It has infected you, like propaganda. My friends are girls wrapped in boys, you find yourself repeating. We’re living in pieces. I want to live in peace.
“Sunday” (from A Thousand Leaves)
A Thousand Leaves has its discordant moments, but overall, it is the polar opposite of, say, Bad Moon Rising. By the time A Thousand Leaves was released, Sonic Youth had been on a major label for years, yet were never accused of selling out in the same way many other former underground bands were. A legion of indie kids bought Sonic Youth albums, then started making their own music, me included. Brian Eno once famously said that “everyone who bought [a copy of the first Velvet Underground LP] started a band,” but for Gen Xers and older Millenials, it may have been more like everyone who owned a Sonic Youth album. A Thousand Leaves is prettier than many of their previous albums (which caused some consternation among the fans and critics who preferred their older, more dissentient songs), and no song on the album makes that more apparent than “Sunday.”
“Sunday” is like a haunting dream. Hearing it now, it sounds like the dream of the ‘90s. It is such a ‘90s song—it was on the subUrbia soundtrack, and Macaulay Culkin was in the music video. It has its moments of buzz-and-scrape noise, but the melody is woven throughout. It is the groove in the record; it soothes even as it hurts. It’s only five minutes long, but it feels endless, in the best possible way. I get lost inside it, haunted by the sad and beautiful dreams of a decade of Sundays. With you, Sunday never ends.
“Small Flowers Crack Concrete” (from NYC Ghosts & Flowers)
NYC Ghosts & Flowers created such confusion that a couple critics actually switched their opinions of it over the years. Robert Christgau gave it an “A” upon its release, but he later claimed to have misjudged it and came to view it in a less favorable light. Brent DiCrescenzo did the opposite—he panned it in a Pitchfork review, and gave it a rating of “0.0.” But, years later, he issued a retraction. To paraphrase, he said he panned it because he lived in Chicago, and he “hated its clichéd New Yorkishness.” He concluded his retraction with: “the lesson here is: Beware the opinions of a kid right out of college.” I loved it from the get-go (and I was in college when it came out— in the Chicago area, no less!), and I love it still. After Daydream Nation, it is my favorite Sonic Youth album. It is gorgeous and eerie, steeped in beat poetry and archaic mysteries, in punk and jazz. The interplay of the Thurston and Lee’s guitars on this album make me wanna tear my skin off and let the universe in. I love it all, from “Free City Rhymes” to “Lightnin’,” but there is no track I love more than “Small Flowers Crack Concrete.”
“Small Flowers” is a noise-jazz-post punk beat ode to Cleveland poet D.A. Levy. Steve Shelley plays a simple hi-hat beat throughout most of it, and that’s the backbone of the song. One guitar twinkles like wind chimes, the other guitar plays a trance-inducing riff. And Thurston’s voice resonates in my gut, saying: At war, with patches of red dirt glitter, and bluejean fucking. And protest.
“Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn” (from The Eternal)
Somehow, I missed out on the three albums between NYC Ghosts and The Eternal—Murray Street, Sonic Nurse, and Rather Ripped. It’s not that I stopped being a fan of Sonic Youth, it’s just that during the years in which those albums came out, most of the new stuff I was getting into was alt-country, or cabaret, or folk punk, and I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to new rock/punk albums, even ones by bands I already liked. By the time The Eternal was released, I had come back around to my old styles, and I purchased it immediately. I love this album. As Thurston Moore said, commenting on the pop-rock elements of The Eternal: the band “definitely wanted to make songs as opposed to doing an avant-garde opus.” And my favorite of the songs they made is “Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn.”
I love it, first of all, because of the title. Because it’s for Jan Paul Beahm, who, before choosing his more famous stage name—Darby Crash—was known as Bobby Pyn. (I had an odd obsession with Darby Crash when I was a teenager.) I love it, second of all, because it shreds everything to pieces. Because it thunders through my bones. There is the inimitable Sonic Youth noisy bit in the center of the song, but on either side of it, it’s a jump-up-and-down punk anthem complete with whoah-whoahs. Truly, it’s a hint at what Thurston has since gone on to do with his new band, Chelsea Light Moving—there are avant-garde overtones, but punk is at its heart. O, u can count on it—Richard Hell tacked to the wall. Remember the Plunger Pit—in love with nothing at all.
Not too long after The Eternal was released, Sonic Youth announced that they were ‘on hiatus,’ and that Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were splitting up. It hurt, finding out that neither this seminal band, nor my favorite rock couple, were eternal. But nothing lasts forever, and I’m just glad I had their noisy riot in my teen age years; that they were there to point me towards cooler, weirder horizons than I ever would have found otherwise.
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