If I’d fallen asleep in fifth-period English class of my junior year in high school for, let’s say, 15 years and woken up just this summer, I would’ve found myself comforted by the familiar musical state of an otherwise alternate world, oblivious to the break-ups and make-ups of currently touring acts like Smashing Pumpkins, Dinosaur Jr., and Rage Against the Machine. Back then, I pined to have high school car cassettes like the Melvins’ Houdini, Slint’s Spiderland, and the GZA’s Liquid Swords come to life on a stage. And so they have come to be. Last month, I wound up at the once abandoned—but now repeopled—McCarren Pool in Greenpoint to see Superchunk play basically the same set now that they did then. What else to do but snooze and daydream?
Such memory and indie-rock nostalgia all converged last Saturday night when, nearly 20 years after the fact, Sonic Youth re-created their epochal double album Daydream Nation for however many people could be shoehorned into the expansive confines of McCarren Pool. In a music world where the album is scoffed at as a relic, a conscientious effort is being made by MP3 music stores like Insound and concert productions like Don’t Look Back to preserve this endangered species.
And yet, album nostalgia is a curious beast—especially when it comes to Sonic Youth. Over the span of their three-decade career, Sonic Youth seem less like a cool underground band one discovers and more a rite of passage, a part of adolescence itself. The generation of hip older brothers and sisters that preceded me were initiated via mid-’80s albums like Bad Moon Rising and EVOL. I was baptized by Goo in 1990 and then began working back in time to the Gnostic pleasures of 1988’s Daydream Nation.
It seems ludicrous to think of it as esoterica now. Daydream Nation is one of Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” Pitchfork’s No. 1 Album of the 1980s; it’s included in the National Recording Registry of historical records, blah blah. Yet that adolescent discovery felt revelatory then, and hopefully continues to be a beacon, much like the cover image of that vigilant candle painted by Gerhard Richter, signifying individuality (or at least a sullen teen’s solipsism).
Sure, Daydream Nation rocked, mutating classic rock’s DNA until it became classic rock itself. Most crucial, though, it was long enough to soundtrack any and all sorts of furtive “brave new world” teen vices: getting trashed, making out, smoking joints, chewing blotter (which hopefully kicked in by the frenetic rush of “Eric’s Trip”). A friend swore it was the best album to lose your virginity to: necking during the anthemic “Teen Age Riot,” humping fast and furious to the speedy riffs of “Silver Rocket,” going at it again by the oompah-thrash beat of “‘Cross the Breeze.” Through countless plays (see above vices), the album became as familiar as a lover’s form, intimate to the point of seeming corporeal. Ah, high school.
Sonic Youth’s institution is so immense that incoming classes can measure themselves against any point along the band’s strata, perhaps realizing their inner Kim, Thurston, Lee, or Steve along the way, while outgoing classes can diss them. In a 1988 discussion published in Spin, Gerard Cosloy (who A&R’ed the band at Homestead) balked at the populism of Daydream Nation
, whereas Robert Christgau, dismissive of the group early on, championed it. In these very pages, Amy Phillips copped to a frosh obsession with 1995’s Washing Machine, yet put such childish things away after 2002’s Murray Street. In response, George Chen wrote that “your heroes inevitably fail you, especially those formed in that extended limbo between adolescence and adulthood.” (I myself tuned out by 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash & No Star.)
By the smell of it Saturday night, apparently the same quantity of weed gets consumed on either side of “that extended limbo.” So why that bittersweet taste of salad days? Perhaps “classic” albums proffer a backward-looking perfection that eludes band and listener in the real world outside the speakers. Amid our everyday entropy, canonical albums act like Wallace Stevens’s glass jar, suddenly ordering the woolly nature around it. A known and dependable quantity, they soundtrack and partially clarify the turbidity of life, be you youth or elder (see Dark Side of the Moon laser light shows). Sumptuously structured, Daydream Nation is a perfect circle for this generation, one that comforts indie fans with something unattainable in reality, yet assuaging nevertheless. Speaking of perfect, how about that full moon rising over the course of their set?
Against a backdrop of a lit candle, Sonic Youth began the slow crest of “Teen Age Riot.” They elucidated each chord change, mindful of every contour and crevice of the original, tagging on a screeching coda at the very end. For most of the night, though, the band intently played it straight, luxuriating slightly longer in their driftscapes, reveling as they sloooooowly unhinged the chaotic center of “Total Trash.” As the audience’s memory evoked each impending note, so did it resound, so that it felt as if the audience projected back onto Sonic Youth.
Despite the spacey sprawl contained in nearly every song on Daydream Nation, the album belies the lengthy noise-loosing they built their legacy on, revealing instead the airtight structure and composition at its core. The architecture of the album doesn’t allow much space to wiggle in and improvise on (as the live versions on the two-disc “deluxe edition” already attest). Only when Lee Ranaldo interjected into “Eric’s Trip” a line about “the deepest, clearest blue I’ve seen” of the sky above McCarren Pool did we leap into the present moment. Everybody talked about the stormy weather, yet it never materialized on this night; the firmament above the crowd and band was a gray but beatific azure.
Recapturing Daydream Nation live is an unnatural act. The album was recorded amidst Reaganomics and the crack epidemic gripping the city, and it’s doubtful the band ever played it live as a song cycle. Saturday, both band and audience sought solely the music of that studio creation itself, not the old Sonic Youth and not the vanished Lower East Side (the concert was in Brooklyn, fer chrissakes). But between the band and the thousands in attendance, whooping loudest at the line about “daydreaming days in a daydream nation,” for a night we conjured again that imaginary land.
At the finale of the furious “Eliminator Jr.,” the band appeared relieved to escape from under the strictures of that behemoth. Uncertain what to command next, Sonic Youth played loose and easy on an encore of songs from Rather Ripped, Kim shimmying and twirling across the stage, finally set free. Perhaps we should take “Hey Joni” to heart, put it all behind us. Or, at the very least, reimagine Mike Watt’s answering-machine message from “Providence,” hearing it not as an admonishment to Thurston to stop smoking so much mota (and losing gear), but as sage advice. Forget that Daydream Nation is “important,” and just allow for that ideal head space where “yer fucking memory just goes out the window.”