No band has been more consistent while simultaneously being more experimental than Sonic Youth. Ever. When it comes to making great records while still pushing the limits of themselves and their listeners, Sonic Youth are the reigning ensemble. I doubt that anyone in the know — fan or foe — would contest that. In Goodbye 20th Century (Da Capo), their first authorized biography, David Browne wades through waves of feedback and gets behind the amps of the nearly three decades of noise from this veritable institution of American music.
Sonic Youth emerged from New York’s underground at a strange time in that city’s musical history. In the early 80s, bands like The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, and Blondie, had all moved on to larger audiences and national attention — not unlike the venue, CBGBs, that launched them. Punk, Hardcore, New Wave, No Wave — it was a mixed-up melee, and Sonic Youth’s musical ideas didn’t really fit into any of the slots provided, as odd and varied as those slots were. They were forced to make their own way. With guitars as weapons and drums and bass as shields, they did just that.
In the early nineties — where other books about the band end — when it seemed that every band near the fringe was signing to major labels and riding Lollapalooza’s coattails into the mainstream, Sonic Youth tried for better or worse to crossover. But, as all involved finally realized, they’re just not that kind of entity. They’ve done as much over the years to alienate audiences as they have to attract them. They’ve also done as much to curate culture as they have to create it, regularly credited with being at least partly responsible for bringing mainstream consideration to creative forces like Beck, Spike Jonze, Mike Watt, Soffia Coppola, Chloe Sevigny, and of course, Nirvana.
As wild as their music often is, they saved all the chaos for the studio and the stage. Behind the scenes, they’re just four normal ol’, crate-digging music nerds, making Goodbye 20th Century quite the opposite of Neil Strauss and Motley Crue’s The Dirt (Harper, 2002). There’s no sex, no drugs, no groupies. There are, however, plenty of cautionary stories regarding major labels, indie labels, distributors, and the like. There are plenty of tales of fleeting fame and the fickle attention of celebrities and mainstream audiences. There are plenty of stories about the band’s creative processes and its progress over years and years of recording and touring. If you’re looking for tales of debauchery, this is not your band and subsequently not your book.
Sonic Youth’s lyrics have been described by critics as “an afterthought.” They’ve never been their strong point and Browne’s book gets at why: a lot of them were constructed from bits of magazine ad copy, overheard conversations, and book excerpts, each song’s lyrics a Burroughs/Gysin cut-up. A lot of others are so direct in their subject matter and pop-cultural references that they seem deep by default. Who would’ve ever thought that on “Kool Thing” from Goo (DGC, 1990), Kim Gordon was poking fun at meeting a Walking With a Panther-era LL Cool J by singing “Kool thing sitting with a kitty / Now you know you’re sure lookin’ pretty”? It seems as though Chuck D put as much thought into his ad-libbed lyrics on the song as she did, but it’s all part of the latent satire of pop culture and its power dynamics inherent in everything the band does. Even their own fame has always been attractive and repelling to them. It’s a constant tension.
I first became aware of Sonic Youth over twenty years ago. Somehow having stumbled upon the video for “Death Valley ’69,” I tracked down a copy of Bad Moon Rising (Blast First, 1985). Though I liked the record, I wasn’t ready. I drifted to other sounds until 1988’s Daydream Nation (Enigma) came out. Those intervening years are the ones I’m most curious about, and, aside from a few minor factual errors and inevitable differences of opinion, this is the book’s one flaw: It’s a bit thin on the early years of the group. Having come up with them as a constant part of the landscape, I wonder most about the years that I didn’t experienced: EVOL, Sister, and behind the scenes of Daydream Nation. That era and those sessions are covered to be sure, but after reading pages and pages about the conflicted recording of Goo, the Dirty (DGC, 1992) sessions with Butch Vig, Lee Ranaldo’s almost leaving the band thereafter, building their Echo Canyon studio, “A Thousand Edits” with Wharton Tiers, 9/11, Murray Street (Interscope, 2002), and Sonic Nurse (Geffen, 2004) with Jim O’Rourke (their “Eno,” as Thurston Moore called him), and all of the major label and industry conflicts, I just wanted more about the early stuff. One also gets the feeling parts of the book were rushed, especially when projects like Steve Shelley’s Smells Like Records and Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! are only mentioned in the last hundred of its pages.
With that said, informed by over one-hundred interviews and easy access to the band and their friends, this is still the definitive Sonic Youth biography. David Browne’s storyteller style and smooth wordsmithing make its four-hundred pages an easy weekend read. If you know little about them or think you know all about them, Goodbye 20th Century is the book for your shelf.
Here’s the video for “100%” from Sonic Youth’s 1992 record, Dirty, featuring skateboard footage and “acting” from Spike Jonze and Jason Lee (runtime: 2:34):
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.