30 August 2008

Book review: Goodbye 20th Century

I finished David Browne's new Sonic Youth bio a few weeks ago and tried to write up a quick review of it, but got blocked up for want of an angle. Two things jogged me today: first, the review of David Lebedoff's The Same Man in tomorrow's Times Book Review contained a single quote from George Orwell that crystallised what it is I liked most about Browne's book: "good prose is like a window pane".

What Browne does best is tell the band's story simply and directly, using language in a way that can best be described as transparent. Too many music writers nowadays (especially on the Internet, where editorial oversight is at a minimum at best; case in point: the run-on parenthetical you find yourself slogging through at this very moment) "learned" their trade worshiping at the twin altars of the inimitable Lester Bangs and the various apprentices of Robert Christgau's Village Voice music section, all of whom seem fascinated by their own ability to turn obscure cultural references into elaborate puns. Some of the latter are quite good at what they do, but their Pitchfork progeny are, to be blunt, not.

It occurred to me to contrast Browne's book with one of the most egregious examples of this tendency toward self-satisfied logorrhea writ large in book form: Jim Greer's unfortunate Guided By Voices biography. Whether his closeness to his subject doomed the book from the start isn't the point: his love of his own prose sinks the book before the end of the first chapter.

And the second thing that jogged me: as I was about to start writing, B— called to say he was at a bookstore in Boston where he had scored a cheap copy of Browne's book. He had also found a copy of Greer's Voices book and was asking whether it was worth picking up. Shit you not.

I think the biggest obstacle I had in coming up with something to say about the book was that Sonic Youth's story is... well, not boring, but hardly salacious. They're just not decadent rock stars, and never were. No one in either the band or its immediate circle of associates wound up strung out on drugs. Their are no illegitimate sonic youths of disputed parentage strewn across the tour map. The closest the band has come to a tragic death in the family was the murder of Black Flag roadie Joe Cole. Sure, he inspired a couple of songs on Dirty, but as far as the band's bio goes he's a marginal figure at best.

In fact, Sonic Youth may be the only band in rock history whose story is interesting solely for the enormous shadow they cast over basically all guitar-based music that developed in their wake. For any left-of-the-mainstream rock music from the early nineties onward, the band's influence is immeasurable. Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo essentially dismantled rock guitar and built an entirely new vocabulary of playing and composing from the ground up. They are one of the only bands who ever truly started over from scratch. Which is not to say they didn't have influences, just that, from about their first full-length onward, they never sounded derivative of them. We may one day be saying the same thing about Radiohead in terms of compositional development, but I don't think their influence will be nearly as inescapable.

Browne doesn't really get into a technical or aesthetic analysis of the band's musical innovations, which is in some ways unfortunate because someone really needs to. It's an incredibly rich body of work that remains largely unexamined. Matthew Stearns similarly declined to attempt any sort of musical exposition in his 331/3 volume on Daydream Nation. There's a great multi-volume dissertation out there waiting to be written, if anyone's up to it, something on the order of Tim Riley's peerless Beatles book or Ben Watson's exhaustive Zappa treatise.

What he does do is tell their story, plain and simple and with little flourish, in a way it deserves to be told. He does a terrific job of painting the scene of New York's overlapping downtown music and art scenes in the early eighties, when the ashes of punk gave way to the far more nihilistic sounds of the so-called "no wave" movement. Having lived in New York throughout the economic boom of the go-go nineties, it's hard for someone like myself to picture just how dangerous day-to-day living was in the East Village at the time, and how much this informed the sounds and styles of the time. In one particularly telling (and chilling) quote, artist Dan Graham notes of the androgynous fashions favoured by the scene's female contingent, "all the women back then were afraid of rape. These were sexually oriented women trying to look unsexual."

Browne also shines in detailing the band's often contentious relationship with Geffen Records after signing with the major label at the end of the eighties, just in time for the "alternative" music boom that followed. While the label tried mightily to break the band to wider audience through the first half of the decade, they remained (and still remain), for the most part, a cult band. Browne includes a few surprisingly dissatisfied quotes from Moore, who seems frustrated to this day at the band's failure to become bigger stars.

Nevertheless, the band re-upped their deal with Geffen in 1994, when their management team managed to score them a signing bonus well above that which their sales alone might have merited, based on the fact that the band had been a major factor in the decisions of cash cows Nirvana and Beck to sign with the label. So in a way, being the coolest kids in school did pay off to some extent.

The book comes to a close following the release of 2006's Rather Ripped, the final record in their renegotiated Geffen obligation, a turning point which leaves the band's future in question. Browne hints that it may be their final album, but that's probably wishful thinking on his part, hoping that his book will wind up being the band's complete story. As it happens, the band have announced plans to release a new album next spring on an as-yet-unnamed independent label.

And so the pattern into which they've settled in the last several years continues: new album every other spring or so, then touring in the summer, when the band members' kids are out of school. Hard to believe it's been over ten years now since the band's longevity and cult-hero status first began garnering them comparisons to the Grateful Dead.

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