Kim Gordon: Femme Fearless

When I started discovering music on my own, Sonic Youth was already a band with records out. In that sense, I don’t know a world without them. I once wrote that they weren’t a band, that they were an institution. One could say the same about Kim Gordon. Her presence in the band and her relationship with Thurston Moore showed us what was possible—and not only that it was possible but that it was also sustainable. Writer Elissa Schappell said that they’d shown an entire generation how to grow up. And then it ended.

Kim Gordon in controversial t-shirt (according to MTV).

Gordon’s is such a singular story, and her memoir, Girl in a Band (Dey St., 2015), tells it in perfectly placed prose. From art to music and back again, she’s been at the center of so much important work. It feels so good to see her emerge as a force of her own through the book. Her sociologist dad coined the vocabulary for the high-school social groups that we still use: geeks, freaks, preps, jocks, and other members of the Breakfast Club. Her mom contributed her sense of fashion: a love of thrifting and mixing styles into something unique. Her brother’s shadow unfortunately loomed over much of her early years, and until reading this, I didn’t even know she had a brother.

Girl in a BandLong-time friends with such creative souls as Dan Graham, Cindy Sherman, Kurt Cobain, Tamra Davis, Chloë Sevigny, Spike Jonze, Kathleen Hanna, Gerhard Richter, William Burroughs, Danny Elfman (whom she dated in high school), and many others, Gordon came into her own as an artist when it meant the most. At five years old she knew art would be the center of her life. “Nothing else mattered,” she writes: “Sometimes I think we know on some level the person we’re going to be in our life, that if we pay attention, we can piece out that information” (p. 67). As a dear old friend once said of our own high-school years, “Who knew we were already who we were going to be?”

When Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, Dave Grohl asked Joan Jett, Annie Clark, Lorde, and Kim Gordon to sing renditions of Nirvana’s songs. Seeing Joan Jett sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Pat Smear (whose first band‘s only record she’d produced in 1979), Krist Novoselic, and Grohl is its own kind of amazing, but Kim Gordon’s unhinged version of “Aneurism” is the absolute shit. She writes of the performance,

I sang ‘Aneurism,’ with its chorus, ‘Beat me out of me‘, bringing in all my own rage and hurt from the last few years—a four-minute-long explosion of grief, where I could finally let myself feel the furious sadness of Kurt’s death and everything else surrounding it (p. 272).

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I saw her walking up the sidewalk on California Avenue in Chicago last summer. We made eye contact, and her expression seemed to say, “Please, don’t recognize me.” I just smiled and nodded, and she did the same. The following passage from the book reminds me of that day:

One day I caught a glimpse of Warhol himself crossing West Broadway—the blond-white wig matching the white of his face, the black-framed glasses. It amazed me how in New York celebrities felt free to roam around the city with no one ever hassling them, in contrast to L.A., where famous people hid out in hidden gated hilltop communities. New York felt so much more real (p. 91).

Kim Gordon has helped define the art of her time, but she hasn’t been limited by it. Her art, performance, and writing all feel completely fearless. After reading this book, I can’t help but think that her story is just getting started.

The Eternal Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth is not a band. It is an institution. Where other bands who manage to stay together for over a quarter of a century (or much less) become legacy bands (i.e., bands that are only known and revered for a part of their careers long past), Sonic Youth continue to push themselves and their fans into new and exciting territory with every passing year together. Lately there’s plenty of proof. In addition to a new record and a recent movie (both discussed below), there’s also David Browne’s Goodbye 20th Century (Da Capo, 2008), Matthew Stearns’ 33 1/3 book on Daydream Nation (Continuum, 2007), and a forthcoming tour (I’ll be seeing them [again] on July 12th at Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama).

Sonic Youth: The EternalTheir latest dozen songs, The Eternal (Matador, 2009) — their first for Matador after a long stint with Geffen — is no exception to the experimentation and consistent limit-pushing. Their sound has always been thick, but the official addition of Marc Ibold (ex-Pavement, Free Kitten), who’s toured with them for the past few years, adds yet another layer, and legendary producer John Agnello (Jawbox, Fugazi, et al.) assisted them in the studio this time. It’s not all walls though. “Antenna” is alternately mellow and melodic, sparse and jagged, driving and droney. “Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn” indulges Thurston’s punk fetishes before devolving into his signature screech. His and Kim’s disembodied vocals on “Anti-Orgasm” also hearken back to earlier, less tuneful times. Other songs, “Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)” and “Calming the Snake” for instance, recall “Candle” and “Kissability,” respectively, from Daydream Nation (Blast First, 1988). The Eternal (named after the Joy Division song?) is not the full-on energetic onslaught of that record or 2006’s Rather Ripped, but it does prove that Sonic Youth is still ripe with noisily good ideas.

Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake

Named after a line from the Sonic Youth song “Tom Violence” from EVOL (Blast First, 1986), Sleeping Nights Awake is a documentary/concert film crowdsourced to a group of Reno high school students through the non-profit Project Moonshine. Ali Alonso, Noah Conrath, Danielle Hauser, Charlie Hayes, Ben Kolton, Allana Noyes, and Nathan Lower were given three digital video cameras (Panasonic AG-DVC30s), training, and told to film the event. They ended up with ten songs from the July 4th, 2006 show in Reno and plenty of backstage, pre- and post-show banter from the band.

The students shot fifteen hours of black-and-white footage, and Project Moonshine founder Michael Albright edited it into the 86-minute Sleeping Nights Awake. I caught it at The Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Austin, Texas, and the results are stunning, if a bit unevenly paced. The ten songs captured are separated by backstage chatter, stalling the film’s momentum each time it really gets rolling. Chunking the songs and the candid bits more might have solved this minor flaw. Otherwise, the film is raw like a Sonic Youth film should be and beautiful like much of the noise they make. It also humanizes the members in a way that’s never been done. Even the New Kid Marc Ibold, and drummer Steve Shelley, who’s on camera backstage for a grand total of about five seconds, come across as personable members of the Sonic Youth family. None of that is to say that the members of Sonic Youth ever seemed inhuman, aforementioned “disembodied vocals” notwithstanding. It is to say that Sleeping Nights Awake does a damn good job of showing their many dimensions.

So, Sonic Youth might be ironically monikered these days, but their age doesn’t show in the youthful energy of their music and experimentation — shown in spades on The Eternal and Sleeping Nights Awake.

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Here’s the trailer for Sleeping Nights Awake [runtime: 3:50]:

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Race for the Prize: 90s Music Biographies

The music scene of the 1990s was confused. At the turn of that last decade, Hip-hop was displacing Metal as the top-selling genre, and Nirvana was allegedly setting off the so-called “alternative revolution,” yet Guns ‘N Roses was all over MTV with opulent, twelve-minute videos and all over the charts with an epic double CD. The world was wild at heart and weird on top.

Black PostcardsUnderneath that odd veneer of mainstream schizophrenia, independent music was thriving. Dean Wareham is one of the unsung architects of indie rock. His bands, Galaxie 500 and Luna, helped define a sound and an era. Black Postcards (Penguin, 2008) is his memoir of the making of that sound, a glimpse at a time in music that is all but long gone: days of record stores, seven inch records and colored vinyl releases, vans and venues, maps and menues… Wareham did his share of time in this world, roaming the land beneath the radar. It was a time when, as he writes, “It was odd playing to an audience of eleven, and then being interviewed as if anyone cared what we had to say about anything” (p. 63).

Wareham’s stories are an in-depth look at band dynamics during a chaotic era and how the music industry worked at the height of its excesses, as well as how Wareham himself negotiated both — an era where label heads describe bands like Luna as “little boats,” saying, “There are too many small boats in the harbor. They’re all trying to get out to sea. But it’s crowded — so many little boats, the big boats can’t get out to sea. It’s terrible” (p. 176). This is when record store shelf space was at a higher premium, before the digital revolution made records in the long tail profitable.

Black Postcards is largely well written and a fun read, even if a bit snarky and nitpicky in places (plenty of venom for Seattle bands, digital technology, The Pixies, etc.), but who wouldn’t, if given such a chance to do so, try to even the score a bit? Even when he’s a grumpy old man about things, his insights are astute. In regard to the music business’s financial woes, he tackles the concert business as well, writing,

There were hundreds of bands out there, booking the clubs months in advance, playing their stupid songs. there is something tribal about it — different groups of men wearing different kinds of rock clothing, descended from different rock traditions, singing their songs and dressing up and dancing around, competing with other groups of men for an audience’s attention (p. 293).

Wareham is also the only other person I know of who likens Eddie Vedder’s voice to Cher’s. Anyway, couple this book with Matthew Buzzell’s Luna documentary, Tell Me Do You Miss Me (Rhino, 2006), and you have a crash course in Wareham’s world of the 90s, as well as two of its most critically renowned and respected outfits.

[Note: While reading Wareham’s book, I also started reading Alfred Jarry’s Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician which was most recently published by the Exact Change imprint. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Exact Change is run by Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, also known as the other two-thirds of Galaxie 500. The coincidence was far too weird to ignore.]

Staring at SoundSpeaking of renowned, respected, and weird, Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips by Jim DeRogatis (Broadway Books, 2006) presents a wholly different view of the same era. If Galaxie 500’s records sounded like they came “from another planet,” then The Flaming Lips are still orbiting some other sun. Staring at Sound does a great job of following their formation from their old meat locker practice space to clubs all over the globe, from parking lots across America to the big screen in Christmas on Mars (2008).

Lead Lip Wayne Coyne talks about not being able to relate to bands from New York such as Sonic Youth, but feeling completely natural broing down with San Antonio’s Butthole Surfers. His musings on recording, filming, and performing are intriguing and enlightening. It’s funny, in some aspects, these guys are so regular. In others, their brains are in backwards. Both cases make their story thus far fun and freaky, and DeRogatis does a fine job telling it.

By the way, like me, Jim DeRogatis spent the 90s writing about music for magazines. Unlike me, Jim got his musings collected and published. One of his previous books, Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the 90s (Da Capo, 2003) is one man’s close-up view of the build-up and breakdown of the music of the time.

On another planet still, but coming up during the same era, Pantera defined a different kind of 90s music. At a time when Heavy Metal was supposed to be dead (friend and fellow writer Adem Tepedelen wrote at the time that metal wasn’t dead, it was “just wounded and pissed off!”), the Cowboys from Hell were debuting records at the top of the charts — back when that meant selling hundreds of thousands of records in just a few days (1994’s Far Beyond Driven sold 186,000 copies in its first week). Their guitarist, “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott was adored and hailed by everyone who knew him and his playing.

Black Tooth GrinBlack Tooth Grin by Zac Crain (Da Capo, 2009) tells Dimebag’s story, from his birth in Arlington, Texas to his death on stage in Columbus, Ohio, from Pantera’s glittery late-80s beginnings to their chart-destroying reign as one of Metal’s most unrelenting acts. Through it all, Dimebag managed to remain a blue-collar Texas everyman while simultaneously becoming a certified Metal guitar god. He was a genuine guy no matter, always ready to buy a tray of shots for the friends at the bar. As friend and business partner Larry English puts it, “There was no fake Dime” (p. 258). He wasn’t quite on his way to burning out, but he never got the chance to fade away. Among many other things about Dimebag, Crain’s book sheds new light on that harrowing night in Columbus in 2004. Dean Wareham may have gotten yelled at by fans for breaking up Galaxie 500, but he didn’t get gunned down for it.

Metal always gets a bad rap when it comes to those who typically write about music. It’s often depicted as cartoonish and silly, the very antithesis of punk or indie rock (Hip-hop is often treated the same way, as if one genre is more “true” or “real” than another). This elitism, if I may call it such, is the antithesis of what I thought the whole punk rock/DIY idea was about. It often seems like less of a dislike for the genre, and more of a contempt for its fans. You might not enjoy Pantera, maybe you think they’re baffoons and their fans are worse, but they did exactly what anyone else who’s ever wanted to play music for a living did — and they never compromised what they wanted that music to be.

The 90s were a weird time for music, and one that we’re not likely to see again. These three books offer three different glimpses into that time and how three bands navigated it — all with varying degrees of success, bitterness, and carnage, but all with a damn good story.

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By the way, if you like the behind the music stories no matter the genre, I also recommend The Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Marilyn Manson and Neil Strauss (ReganBooks, 1998) and for added debauchery, check out The Dirt by Motley Crue and Neil Strauss (HarperEntertainment, 2002) and Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind (Feral House, 2003). Oh, and I can never say enough good about Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series.

33 1/3: Books About Records

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

The line above has been attributed to several voices — Elvis Costello, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and Lester Bangs, among others — but if the roof is on fire, I say we dance. Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series, helmed by the insightful and inimitable David Barker, is good books all about good records. Not just “good” records, but records that changed the face of music in one way or another — records that set the roof aflame, and the two I just read — Paul’s Boutique by Dan LeRoy and Loveless by Mike McGonigal — are just that.

I know, what can possibly be said about Paul’s Boutique and Loveless that you haven’t already heard some drunken music geek say jumping up and down waving his or her (probably his) hands? I thought the same thing, but having been that drunken, hand-waving music geek more than once in the past, I was still interested.

Coming out of the wake of the Hip-hop parody that was License to Ill (Def Jam, 1986), The Beastie Boys surprised everyone with the sample-heavy psychedelia of Paul’s Boutique (Capitol, 1989). Upon its initial release, the record’s public response could be described as “doom” for The Beastie Boys’ career, but over the years it has proven itself one of the most important records of its time, and possibly the most creative sample-based record ever made.

The Beastie Boys were seemingly riding high after their many tours supporting License to Ill. On the contrary, they were ready for a break and ready to get paid, but their bosses at Def Jam were not about to offer them either of these. The suits neuvo there were stuck in a cashless lurch with their newly minted distribution deal with Columbia and anxious for a new record from the Beasties. This would not do. So, our heroes bounced to the Left Coast, found some new friends, some new collaborators, a lawyer, and a new label. Finally paid by a sweet advance from Capitol, the boys were set to blow off some steam and start work on what would become their undisputed masterpiece.

While the Beastie Boys were sorting out their post-License to Ill lives, a loose-knit group of DJs and producers was busy creating the soundtrack to their next era. Among these were John King and Simpson (The Dust Brothers), Matt Dike (DJ, promoter, Delicious Vinyl founder), and Mario Caldato Jr. (studio engineer). Paul’s Boutique would eventually include the music of many — real (?) and sampled.

Dan LeRoy’s book gets at how this all came together, and — it’s an interesting and illuminating read about a particularly mysterious time in the Beasties’ history. LeRoy’s insightful epilogue regarding nostalgia is also not to be missed.

Say what you will about The Beastie Boys, but Paul’s Boutique is the record that synced their placement in the alphabet and their placement among music legends: right between The Beach Boys (Pet Sounds) and The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).

Not unlike Paul’s Boutique, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (Creation, 1990) is widely considered — and rightfully so — one of the most important and influential records of the 90s. Also like Paul’s Boutique, its making is shroud in rumor. Such myths (e.g., that it cost half a million dollars to record and bankrupt their label Creation only to be saved by Oasis, Kevin Shield’s notorious studio meticulousness, that there are thousands of guitar overdubs, etc.) are either clarified or dispelled herein.

Mike McGonigal does some digging for the roots of the signature My Bloody Valentine sound that was refined on Loveless and defined an era and countless imitators (also mentioning such worthy influences as Sigur Rós, Mogwai, M83, and Caribou, but spending a disproportionate number of pages on Rafael Toral), but how he went the whole book without mentioning Robert Hampson, I do not know. He does warn that writing about this record can make you “start believing it’s the most transcendent record ever,” and that “it’s too easy for this album to turn you into a pretentious twat. Be very careful!!!” Thankfully, he avoids hyperbole except where appropriate and taps into why this beautiful wall of guitar noise remains the touchstone that it is.

These two books pull back the curtain on their respective subjects, giving us a glimpse behind the mystery surrounding both. So, if you’ve been that drunken, hand-waving music geek or know someone who has, these two books (as well as the rest of Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series, including books on Reign in Blood by Slayer, Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth, …Endtroducing by DJ Shadow, Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, Led Zepplin IV, Bee Thousand by Guided by Voices, among many others) will help explain the phenomenon.

Now if I could just convince David Barker to let me do one… (Right?)

I cannot resist adding the video for My Bloody Valentine’s “To Here Knows When” (runtime: 4:43) from which the cover art for Loveless was gleaned. It’s absolutely perfect.

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Sonic Youth: Goodbye 20th Century

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. Continue reading “Sonic Youth: Goodbye 20th Century”