For Thurston Moore, 2014 was a year of wild oscillations. The former Sonic Youth frontman and alt demigod released The Best Day, some of his best-received solo work in years. But the record came out only a few months after the messier parts of his divorce from fellow demigod Kim Gordon came to light, namely an extramarital relationship. He started being referred to as an adulterer (notably, in the same breath as Courtney Love was deemed possibly “mentally ill” in a New York Post headline). Pitchfork called him “the most famous — and, in some circles, most reviled — divorcé in American indie-rock.” Jezebel simply called him a dick.
Suddenly, it was Team Gordon or Team Moore, as though we wanted to reduce the complexity of a personal and artistic partnership spanning three decades to a reality show format. But reduce we did, and it seemed like the entire internet was Team Gordon. Even so, these tongue-lashings seem to have had a less-than-crushing effect on Moore. “A lot of that existed in the virtual world, but on the street, not so much…it’s almost exclusively by people I don’t know who they are. But when I go out on the street, it’s not presented to me at all,” he told the Wall Street Journal in October of 2014.
That attitude could be a symptom of sycophants and privilege isolating Moore — or it could be that a good fraction of the histrionic outrage tirelessly pumping through our internet tubes mostly exists in the minds of those crafting that outrage, and that most people are more concerned with the music than re-enacting the Salem witch trials.
The latter, thankfully, proved to be true of Moore’s talk Tuesday night at Williamsburg’s Rough Trade NYC, where he was promoting Stereo Sanctity, a comprehensive selection of his poems and lyrics. There were no pitchforks or angry internet-townspeople — in fact, the event was spectacularly uneventful: Before a modest midweek crowd, Moore chatted with his old buddy and sometime bandmate Steve Shelley about the intersection of music and poetry. Pretty boring stuff, really, for those hoping for a soundbite to perpetuate the “predictable dickhole” narrative, and deliciously boring for those interested in anecdotes about used bookstores and unsung poets.
Moore, dressed in a brown blazer and still sporting his babyface, was personable and professorially intelligent. He took the crowd through the stories behind Stereo Sanctity more or less chronologically, beginning with his childhood in Connecticut. The first lyrics he ever wrote were for imaginary bands, of which he was the only member. One was called Parthenon, another Lling Ston, a riff on Rolling Stone. Moore was still a teenager, and he was obsessed with music publications. He sent away for Richard Hell’s work after seeing an ad in Rock Scene that simply said “Call Hell” and gave a phone number. He read Patti Smith’s poetry in Creem. Artists like those fostered the idea in him that poetry and music could collide — not in a Dylanesque way, but out on the fringe, dangerously. Smith would put quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke in her pieces; Moore would go ask someone in a bookstore who that was.
These publications also served as “signals from New York.” Moore and another friend thought, “Let’s go see what that is,” so they left Connecticut and ended up at Max’s Kansas City. The first gig he saw was a dual bill of the Cramps and Suicide. “Suicide was assaultive, Alan Vega cutting himself with broken glass,” Moore recalled.
Moore would stay in New York, of course, forming Sonic Youth. He remembers thinking about lyrics for the band as a combination of the Ramones and Smith. The lyrics from “I’m Insane,” from 1985’s seminal Bad Moon Rising, were culled from the backs of wonderfully trashy pulp novels Moore collected. “They were one of the only things I could collect, because they were pennies on the pound,” Moore said. “Rowdy farmhands, full of sex and violence, really salient books.”
Another track on Bad Moon Rising came about as a misheard song lyric. Moore was listening to Black Flag’s Damaged and thought he heard “society as a hole” instead of the actual “society’s arms of control.” Mondegreens have always been a thing for Sonic Youth: At one of their first shows, a journalist misheard “I trust the speed, I love the fear” as “I take lots of speed, drink lots of beer.” “That was the opposite of what I was going for,” said Moore, getting a big laugh. “That’s why I’m glad to have all the lyrics collected in this book.”
Some of Moore’s lyrics were labored over; some were written “three hours before recording.” They have always been among the very best in music, and having them collected in this fashion is lovely. Moore finished the talk by saying that every song you write eventually comes true.
If one is to preach empathy, one also has to be emphatic toward those who engineer outrage. As Nitsuh Abebe put it in New York magazine, Kim and Thurston’s dissolution was like “thousands of indie-rock fans simultaneously learning that their parents were getting divorced.” Dad had cheated on Mom, and people were angry. But last night Moore betrayed no hint of a man embittered by anger. Instead he was thoughtful, reflective, and honest. Perhaps we should, once again, take a page from his book.