Growing Old With Sonic Youth

Thrift store heaven. Tucson, January 2019.

When I saw that my favourite place in Tucson, The Loft Cinema, would be celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, with the band’s drummer Steve Shelley, its archivist Aaron Mullan, and local legend Howe Gelb — part of a national theater tour — I knew I had to be there. I wasn’t sure what would be happening but figured it didn’t matter.

Although I’m the sort of person who can find deep meanings on a cereal box, I don’t always want to expose culture to the harsh light of critique. Despite writing about music for decades, I am reluctant to reflect on what I love most and even more reluctant to share whatever I come up with. But Sonic Youth is a notable exception.

Part of the reason is the way I discovered them. Growing up without older siblings, in a household where any popular music made after the early 1950s was looked down upon, I invariably learned about new music later than most of my peers. And when my curiosity finally became too strong to contain, I did my research in magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin and the reviews in the Washington Post and New York Times.

In theory, I could have discovered new music by listening: I lived in a part of suburban Maryland that not only put numerous college radio signals at my disposal but also the path-breaking alternative station WHFS. Yet my father’s tight grip on the stereo, whether at home or in the car, made it difficult for me to tune in. So I would read and read, trying to conjure an idea of what music would sound like from words alone.

The year I spent in Germany after high school broadened my horizons considerably, thanks to the excellent taste of friends I’d made. Even there, though, I was dependent on them for learning about new music – I never heard music on the radio – unless I purchased a record myself. Every time I made it to the Hauptbahnhof of a major city, I hit the newsstand to buy copies of Rolling Stone and Spin, as well as the British publications I came to know during my year abroad: Melody Maker, New Musical Express, and The Face. Then I would read them cover to cover, often several times over, in order to come up for a wish list for my next trip to the city.

This was a significant improvement on what I had done back home in the States because I had more free time away from the pressures of family and more money to spend on my excursions. 

Maybe that’s why, when I returned to the States to begin my studies at the University of California in Berkeley, I stuck with this tried-and-true approach, no matter how backward it seemed to others. I would read about a record, decide that it was interesting enough to use my limited funds on, then take it home to find out whether I’d made a good or bad decision. The only times I deviated from this approach were when the cover of an album sufficiently intrigued me or I was lucky enough to hear something good playing over the stereo in the record store, which back then meant Rasputin’s on Telegraph or Tower and Leopold’s on Durant since Amoeba hadn’t opened yet.

While I didn’t discover many records that way, those I did were the most memorable finds of my undergraduate years, creating the foundation for tastes I continue to indulge. I was so used to having my music acquisitions framed by the words of critics, who had already determined in advance what was worth my time and money, that I usually tuned out whatever was playing in record stores. But every now and then, something would penetrate my focused searching and make me pay attention, records like Throwing Muses’ eponymous debut; The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa; and, on one rainy day early in 1989, Daydream Nation.

Sonic Youth was already well known in the independent music scene, in part because of the relationships with other musicians, artists, and critics that the band had been able to establish in its New York home. I’m sure there were many record store clerks and college radio listeners eagerly anticipating Daydream Nation before its release the previous October. In spite of all my magazine reading, however, I didn’t recall hearing of them. When I finally mustered the courage to walk up to the front of the store and ask what was playing over the PA – a task I preferred to avoid unless I absolutely had to know what I was hearing – the clerk gestured absent-mindedly towards the stereo, where a CD jewel box featuring the image of a candle was propped up, and said, “Sonic Youth, of course.”

Normally, I wouldn’t buy a record on the same visit when I had to ask a question, because I was ashamed of how little I knew. On that day, however, I didn’t care. I immediately walked over to the S section, grabbed the wasteful cardboard box in which CDs sold in the States were packaged back then, and returned immediately to the counter. Then I went back to the El Cerrito apartment I shared with an acquaintance from high school, plugged in my Sony MDR-V6 headphones, and settled down to listen on the staircase that led down to my basement room for a listen. As I type this, I can smell the new carpet that covered the stairs and feel its texture. And my knees are starting to ache, from the memory of leaning forward for the length of the album, too enchanted to press the pause button.

I’ve heard Daydream Nation a great many times since that evening in 1989. I saw Sonic Youth perform most of the songs on it live between 1990 and 2011. I’ve read just about everything there is to read about it. Yet my feelings about the record are still inextricably bound up with that solitary and uncomfortable first hearing. It was the first time that music moved my body without distracting my mind, savage and cerebral in equal measure.

The unusual tunings that Sonic Youth is famous for crop up in a wide variety of self-consciously arty and experimental music. But I’ve never heard them deployed with such insouciant abandon. In his review of the album for The Village Voice, Robert Christgau contrasts it with the band’s early records that emerged from the No Wave scene, which “look moderately prophetic and sound better than they used to. But they don’t sound anywhere near as good as the happy-go-lucky careerism and four-on-the-floor maturity Our Heroes are indulging now.”

That’s why Daydream Nation is simultaneously thinking-person’s rock and rock for persons who have reached the limits of what mere thinking can accomplish. As Christgau aptly states, “their discordant never-let-up is a philosophical triumph. They’re not peering into the fissure, they’re barreling down the turnpike like the fissure ain’t there. And maybe they’re right – they were the first time.”

By the time he wrote that review, Christgau had been listening to records professionally for two decades and acquired a depth of knowledge that it was literally impossible for ordinary fans to achieve before the advent of streaming services. Nevertheless, he could still tell that Daydream Nation was doing something new, transforming the preoccupations of the avant-garde into kindling – one of the original meanings of “punk” was scrap wood – for the fires of a brutally direct form of popular culture.

For someone like me, though, whose musical experience was limited even in comparison to many of my peers, that sense of novelty was completely overwhelming. Already after that first hearing of the album in my El Cerrito apartment, I knew that my sense of what is possible in both art and life had been irrevocably transformed. And even today, as old and jaded as I otherwise am, with a seemingly infinite amount of music at my disposal, nothing affects me more profoundly than the opening bars of “Teen Age Riot”, which flood my body with excitement at the fury to come.

Sonic Youth made great records after Daydream Nation — I actually prefer Washing Machine, overall – and gave great performances nearly every time I saw them. I once saw them play to the almost entirely empty reserved seats at the Shoreline Ampitheater as an opening act for REM with an intensity that distilled the essence of punk. I saw them laugh on stage and communicate a barely repressed rage. I saw them at their most experimental and their most pop. I saw them when it was obvious that the personal relationships that defined the band were on the verge of irreparable damage. But nothing could ever top the memory of getting to know that album, when I had absolutely no conception of who Sonic Youth was or where they came from, with only their music to go by.

That’s why I had to be there this past Saturday at The Loft. Once I was settled in my seat watching the event unfold, however, the fact that I still wasn’t sure how to classify it seemed more important. Hearing different versions of songs from the album, even messy live recordings from the late 1980s, was a pleasure. And, by the end of the evening, when we were watching live footage of the band performing the three interrelated songs that close the album, I was able to tune out distractions for minutes at a time. Even so, though, I walked out the door afterwards feeling more like someone who had visited a museum exhibition than a concert, one in which my interest fluctuated to a surprising degree. Somewhere along the way, my body had gone missing.

Indeed, my first impulse on the drive to my father’s nursing facility afterwards was to listen to the album right way, to see whether I could still dissolve myself in the music the way I had after first purchasing it from Rasputin’s. Yet when I started streaming it through the car’s ample stereo, I found the experience almost painful and had to switch back to the Spotify playlist of secular music from the Renaissance that I’d been relaxing with during the preceding week.

I’ve been trying to make sense of that experience ever since. Was the event to blame for my reaction? Or was I? The past two decades have witnessed a remarkable expansion of the ways in which we can revisit our favourite music. One classic album after another has been re-released with demos, outtakes, live versions, B-sides, and songs that were left of the original. Documentaries about the making of those albums have proliferated as well. Many artists have also performed special concerts in which they play their best-known albums start to finish.

Sonic Youth is no exception. Starting in the mid-2000s, they began to reissue the records from the years in which they attained international fame with a wealth of extra material. And they played Daydream Nation in its entirety at a number of locations in 2007, including the Glasgow venue where Bangs shot the excellent footage that closed the Loft event. Where once the album struck me like a beacon in the darkness, it has now attained the patina of an overexposed Polaroid.

Experiencing music that we don’t already know backwards and forwards in this annotated and expanded way can be thrilling, as proved to be the case for me with the recent Bootleg Series reissue of Bob Dylan’s Blood on Tracks. I had heard the original LP, but didn’t like it nearly as much as other work by him, despite its reputation. Now, it’s one of favorite Dylan records, but only with the benefit of all the extra tracks now at our disposal. And there are times when the box set treatment makes it possible to revise our assessment of music we already know and love, as recently happened for me with The Beatles’ White Album.

But when a record has already seemed perfect to us, though, and played a significant role in the development of our tastes, a wealth of new data can backfire. If my experience Saturday evening is any indication, I fear we are approaching the point when the impulse to celebrate what we love most brings more pain than pleasure.

Don’t get me wrong. I was happy to learn new things about the record and the band. I liked watching local hero Howe Gelb interact with Shelley and Mullen. And the low-fi clips from the band’s 1986 disastrous visit to Tucson were a rare delight. But about halfway through the event, I felt myself experiencing documentary fatigue. It started to seem as if each new bit of information directed my way was going to dislodge an equivalent-sized block of pleasure — the sort I had previously been able to access again and again, with no appreciable loss of intensity — and send it drifting off downstream.

That general sensation has been plaguing me a lot recently. I purchase expanded editions of my favourite albums, but then fail to listen to the extra tracks. I acquire Criterion Blu-rays of my favourite films, but never listen to the commentaries. And even though I can easily access dozens of articles about my favourite books, I prefer not to have their impact weighed down by commentary. Perhaps this is simply an indication that I’m going through a midlife crisis. I suspect, however, that the problem lies with the sheer excess of entertainment opportunities available to us today.

When we are presented with an overwhelming array of choices, we think back nostalgically on the works we came to love, in part, because we didn’t have so much to occupy our minds and bodies when discovered them. To the extent that reunion and reissue culture complicates our experience of those works, potentially leading us down paths far removed from our original thrills, it starts to feel like we’re stuck at a toll booth instead of barreling down the turnpike the way we once did.

Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.