McCarren Park Pool’s dry spell has finally, inevitably, sadly ended. Feel free to mourn the monolithic, charmingly ugly Greenpoint spot’s improbable three-year reign as the sweetest concert venue around—eventually it’ll once again be filled with heavily chlorinated water and screaming young children for whom dodgeball and the Slip ‘N Slide were originally invented. It’s just as well.
Not that we didn’t have some swell times, though, bolstered by some truly epic people-watching: a teeming mass of cool-kid humanity strutting through the most bewildering fashion show in town. (Is that guy in the topsiders, ratty gym shorts, Thundercats T-shirt, and John McEnroe headband being ironic? Did he roll out of bed five minutes ago? Did he spend five hours painstakingly creating the impression that he rolled out of bed five years ago?) Sure, a few bands played, your TVs on the Radio, your Hold Steadies, your Yeah Yeah Yeahses. But we, the patrons, were always the star attractions, models on the widest, flattest, ugliest, concrete-ist runway ever concocted, stumbling through breezeless, brutally humid summer heat waves bearing stagnant air so viscous you could almost swim through it. We’ll remember those gratis Sunday-afternoon JellyNYC parties fondest of all, the dodgeball court and Slip ‘N Slide manor in full swing, our generation’s hopeless sartorial sense flaunted at every turn, everyone present having stood in a line stretching all the way to Queens just to watch the Breeders sing “Divine Hammer” (as New Yorkers, we will endure hours of Sisyphusian hardship just to get into a “free” event), not to mention the nearly-as-long lines inside to buy tickets to stand in yet another line to buy a beer to raise up when the chorus hits. We will miss all this. It wasn’t perfect, but it was ours, and while perfect is rare, ours isn’t much more in abundance.
You had to pay for the grand finale, though, and this, too, is just as well. It is Saturday afternoon, mercifully temperate, no gym-class shenanigans or water sports to distract from the Pool’s final headliner: Sonic Youth. Ah, good. They are older now than we ever could’ve imagined and still cooler than we’ll ever be (cooler than 1,000 monkeys wearing 1,000 Thundercats T-shirts), well-aged emissaries from an era when all of New York City looked like McCarren Park Pool and sounded like Sonic Youth still sound: the hugeness, the squalor, the ceaseless pounding noise, the profound seediness. (Remember that dead body from last month? Yeesh.) The 10-year-old kid standing there in the “Lower East Fuckin’ Side” tee can’t even conceive of it, and thank God. But Thurston & Kim & Lee & Steve & Mark (Ibold, he of Pavement, a recent addition, meekly banging on his bass with his fists during noisy moments in a valiant attempt to fit in) can still conjure that post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy–style desolation, still ugly & unrelenting & exhilarating as hell. After kicking off with a couple nameless, half-formed new “jammers”—blunt and grumpy and riff-heavy, Gray Sabbath, a sharp rebuke to the softer, more pastoral noodlings that defined SY’s later output before 2006’s thunderous Rather Ripped—Thurston introduces “The Burning Spear” as “the first song we ever wrote, way back when we were in our early forties,” and that brilliant first line, “I’m not afraid to say I’m scared,” is far more chilling and appropriate now than it was in 1982. Ah, good.
You’ve known what you’re getting with Sonic Youth for decades now, and it’s still a thrill to get it, those feedback squalls and flailing windmill poses and drumstick-thwapping antics that miraculously still strike you as righteous and genuine, as opposed to clichéd and hilarious. Raging jammers like “Silver Rocket” and “Mote” and Ripped‘s delightfully horndogged “Pink Steam” are given ample room to breathe and seethe, with languid mid-song shrieking/flailing/thwapping tantrums softly evaporating into moody, ethereal interludes that nearly lull you to sleep before the big, bad riff kicks back in and bowls you over. It’s a masterful build-and-release job, and while Thurston still expertly plays the affable goofball (“I want a constant flurry of beach balls thrown at my face”) and Kim still embodies the mysterious, volatile ingénue (twirling around like a homicidal Stevie Nicks as she barks out “Making the Nature Scene” and the disarmingly pretty “Jams Run Free”), Lee’s voice, its articulate howl of desperation—as though he’s shouting all his lyrics at someone on a departing bus already halfway down the block—fits the maelstrom best. We peak early this afternoon, with a raucous and maniacal “Hey Joni,” but the hour or so that follows is hardly a letdown, and the moment during the shrieking/flailing/thwapping tantrum in “Mote” where Thurston’s guitar and Kim’s bass violently smash into each other high above their heads, and the happy couple stumbles around for a few seconds holding that improvised cross before sharing a quick, spontaneous hug, has gotta be the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen onstage. “Expressway to Yr. Skull” closes us out, all space and echo and ominous portent and near silence. We could almost be underwater.
Our three opening bands arrive neatly divided into half-hour sets for maximum impact and overkill prevention. (Even polarizing noise-rock terrorizers Wolf Eyes are tolerable, if only to watch horrified fellow patrons jam their fingers in their ears as you wonder what the poor saps in all the nearby luxury condos must be thinking.) Times New Viking are noisy, too, but poppy and endearingly bratty (and from Ohio, so be nice). But the real prize here jumps onstage right at 5 p.m., before many ticketholders have even left their apartments: Brooklyn’s own Vivian Girls, a fuzz-punk trio with a classic girl group’s precise mixture of sweet naïveté and (cheerfully) snarling force. Their low-fuss, lo-fi aesthetic (you can buy their cassette tape for $7, though it’s going fast) nicely complements the Pool’s oh-what-the-fuck-usually-it’s-free sound system; their melodies are infectious, their deadpan stage banter (“OK, here’s our next song”) nicely unpompous. “Wild Eyes” will bang around your head for a while, and you will not begrudge it. Let’s hope we can find a sweet new place to go hear it.