“Sonic matters, Sonic Kollaborations” exhibition, 77 Wooster street, through september 10
(photo courtesy of Printed Matter ).
Speaking of ghosts, I’m looking at the poster for the Noise Fest that occupied White Columns, on far west Spring Street, for nine evenings in June 1981. By now it looks as antique as a ticket to the Beaux Arts Ball. Even if you were there you can find it difficult to remember anything in particular about some of these bands—I remember that a friend of mine was in Khmer Rouge, for example, but not one iota more than that. Not all the names are dissolved in the mists of time (Glenn Branca, Elliot Sharp) or should be (Ut, Y Pants), but the only group that is still a going concern after 19 years (unless Mofungo is conspiring on a comeback) is Sonic Youth, who by all rights should have been in rompers about then. And not only are they still a going concern, they alone of their contemporaries have taken the spirit of the Noise Fest and the microculture from which it sprang and gone global big-time with it.
Bringing up this artifact seems apropos regarding the Youths’ latest, nyc ghosts & flowers, because, as its title indicates down to the lowercase and the ampersand, it is dense with retrospection. Not nostalgia, mind you, but a somewhat haunted awareness of the past, an inevitability if you’ve lived in New York City for any length of time and especially if you’ve been connected to the old bohemia that now lies stone-cold dead in the market (you can’t have bohemia without cheap rents). The fingerprints of that bohemia are all over the package, from the front cover stencil-spray-can painting by the late Kansas exile William Burroughs to the ecstatic 1967 flower painting by the late rememberer and pen-and-ink genius Joe Brainard on the back. Inside there’s a still from Dan Graham’s video Rock My Religion, a prime relic of the CoLab/Fashion Moda/Times Square Show era circa 1980, and a small painting by Robert Mooney of Patti Smith, probably at CB’s around ’75.
The songs themselves are more Janus-headed, but they light their little candles. “Free city rhymes” has a title straight out of the Poetry Project in its heroic years, and the line “ghosts burn to shine” evokes Burroughs’s Bowery neighbor, the poet John Giorno. Even more direct is “small flowers crack concrete,” a jazz-&-poetry-ish memorial to the Cleveland Buddhist pothead poet and free-speech martyr d.a. levy, suicided by society in ’67 (check out the recent anthology of his long-dispersed works, The Buddhist 3rd-Class Junk Mail Oracle). (I’ve never been too sure about the whole lowercase business—wasn’t e.e. cummings sufficiently embarrassing?—but amen.)
And “nevermind (what was it anyway?),” apparently about you-know-who, name-checks “jean-michel” (who else but Basquiat?). And the middle section of “renegade princess,” with its loping beat, single hammered chord, and shouted anthemic lyrics (“gonna fight for yr blood tonight/crystal hearts gonna break you down/tangled hearts in a midnight fight”), is not a million miles from Patti S. doing “Space Monkey,” say. And “streamXsonik subway” might belong to the past-of-the-future genre, you know, like the year 2000 as forecast at the 1939 World’s Fair, only in this case the voice is distinctly that of a 1970s punk poet set down in the all-digital almost-here (“fell asleep and missed my stop/got rousted by a low-beam cop/got a ticket-patch for illicit flop/then froze me with his jesus gun”), and it’s got a break that sounds like a 40-second Glenn Branca symphony embroidered with bleeps.
Sonic Youth, like many of the bands at that long-ago Noise Fest, emerged at least in part from a synthesis of two conflicting downtown strains: the French symbolist guitar-army wing of the mid-’70s CBGB roster on the one hand, and on the other, the antirock skronk’n’blap No Wave tendency that came along a few years later. It’s been noted that lumpers tend to enjoy longer lives than splitters, but what’s really remarkable about these colossal Youths is how they’ve managed to sustain the tension of that synthesis over time, so that the impulse to make something beautiful and the impulse to tear it down coexist with equal force in almost everything they do. To a degree they’ve maintained by pickling in the sublimate of the avant-garde, as last year’s Goodbye 20th Century demonstrates—the anarchist Zen practice of John Cage, once startling, now sounds evergreen, as impervious to fashion as a toadstool (although who knows what Cage would make of being covered by the Youths, he who once called Branca’s music “fascistic,” or words to that effect?). But then that MOMA roof-garden stuff is itself balanced by an ineradicable whiff of the garage—Sonic Youth are in no sense rock-band-as-art-project (see Wire). Above all, they are romantics, and that’s what connects them most tangibly with those ghosts and poets. It’s what gives them their consistency and makes them eternally with-it even when the history has vaporized and guitars look about as hep as bassoons.
They got all their equipment stolen last year, no joke, every last doctored guitar and mutant foot-pedal pocketed in California during a tour, by thieves who must to this day be wondering how they can possibly dispose of the stuff, as idiosyncratic as old socks. It hasn’t affected their sound any, pretty amazing considering that the current item was recorded last August, giving them no more than a couple of months to perform Frankenstein operations on a whole bunch of new instruments. All the odd tunings are in place, the chords that walk the line between dissonance and its opposite. It is, of course, impossible to imagine this band sounding any other way—you’re less likely to mistake a Sonic Youth record (apart from the aforementioned Goodbye 20th Century) for anything else than you would their photographs. Like dwellers of a remote valley, they speak a dialect peculiar to themselves. Visiting anthropologists would recognize the deep grammatical structure as descended from the archaic tongue of the Ventures and the Astronauts, find links to the sermons of Duane Eddy and Dick Dale, and go on from there through sundry Velvet Undergrounds, but eventually admit the language has diverged as much as Finnish did from Hungarian (or was it the other way around?).
Their lyrical, meditative aspect has been increasing of late, and their famed tripartite structure (melody-chaos-melody) is barely in evidence here. I guess Thurston Moore is the voice on “renegade princess” and “streamXsonik subway,” the two most egregiously rockist numbers—which isn’t really saying a whole lot. The structure of “princess” is, roughly: Martian court music/punk rock!/guitars merging with the ebbs and swells of the ocean. Lee Ranaldo seems primarily responsible for the moody Sprechstimme of “free city rhymes,” “small flowers crack concrete,” and the title tune. That German word means “talk-song,” and it’s the literal case in the latter two: The vocalist is telling you something, or telling himself, woolgathering, now and then breaking into song, against a continuo of rising and falling chords. Of Kim Gordon’s three trips to the spotlight, only “lightnin’ ” echoes—in a meditative kind of way—the skronk’n’blap of her items on A Thousand Leaves. By contrast, “nevermind” and “side2side” are as catchy and finger-popping as anything on the platter, while characteristically seeming magically assembled from cardboard and pocket lint. I almost hate to say this, but it’s a lovely disc—lovely like a violent abstraction in creamy pastels.