Boys Are Smelly: Sonic Youth Tour Diary, ’87
Rock & Roll Quarterly, Fall, 1988
BEFORE PICKING up a bass I was just another girl with a fantasy. What would it be like to be right under the pinnacle of energy, beneath two guys crossing their guitars, two thunderfoxes in the throes of self-love and male bonding? How sick, but what desire could be more ordinary? How many grannies once wanted to rub their faces in Elvis’s crotch, and how many boys want to be whipped by Steve Albini’s guitar?
In the middle of the stage, where I stand as the bass player of Sonic Youth, the music comes at me from all directions. The most heightened state of being female is watching people watch you. Manipulating that state, without breaking the spell of performing, is what makes someone like Madonna all the more brilliant. Simple pop structures sustain her image, allowing her real self to remain a mystery —is she really that sexy? Loud dissonance and blurred melody create their own ambiguity — are we really that violent? — a context that allows me to be anonymous. For my purposes, being obsessed with boys playing guitars, being as ordinary as possible, being a girl bass player is ideal, because the swirl of Sonic Youth music makes me forget about being a girl. I like being in a weak position and making it strong.
We’re the Archies!
PEOPLE WHO CAN’T even believe we have an audience are always curious about who they are. Maybe half the crowd who shows up in New York are real fans: noise buffs, death rockers, yuppies who have never heard a Sonic Youth record but know who Lydia Lunch is, rock writers, fanzine moguls, and sexual misfits, each and every one of them dressed in black. In L.A. everyone is more power-shag. In other cities audiences are younger, mostly 14- and 15-year-olds from areas that have cable (MTV’s 120 Minutes), get exposed to us, and, unlike college students, have nothing better to do. New Yorkers familiar with Sonic Youth never consider us a teeny-bopper band, but that just goes to show how provincial New Yorkers really are. They should get out of the city more often and see the world.
A lot has changed though since Sonic Youth began in ’81. Cofounder and guitarist Thurston Moore named a show he was booking Noisefest. That’s where we met guitarist Lee Ranaldo and the band came together. The festival’s name was a joke, inspired by the owner of Hurrah who had said he was gonna close the club because all the bands just sounded like a bunch of noise. Nobody even knew what a noise band was. I wondered if people would be disappointed in Europe, the easiest place for New York bands to get gigs, because we didn’t fit the image. Next to our friends the Swans, who were very loud and had a percussionist who pounded metal, we were total wimps.
Every Night, A Different Gig
LYLE HYSEN, drummer for Das Damen, a New York band with a Deep Purple-like zest for guitar curdle and intricate song structures that frame a tragicomic persona (if comedian Richard Lewis were a band, they’d be it), told me about this vision he had that would change the face of indie rock. Instead of the band going on the road, from city to city, the audience would tour. For instance, they could do the Midwest. Head out to Minneapolis and see the Replacements, Soul Asylum, and Run Westy Run. Get back on the bus and drive to Madison for Killdozer, Die Kreuzen, and the Tar Babies. Just think, every night a different gig.
You’d be better off than the typical small touring band. There’d be no endless bickering about where-what-when to eat, all that draining decision-making. The tour manager would take care of everything, so you could just concentrate on watching the bands play. If the bus broke down, well, maybe you’d miss a gig, but it’s not your responsibility.
Personally, I like to know that a band has suffered by the time they get onstage. Like the first time Redd Kross toured. Out of some 30 dates they did six. They drove out of L.A. in some crappy station wagon they bought with a record company advance, and they had big suitcases filled with their gear — high-heeled sneakers, spangled bell-bottoms, poly-coated blouses — and everything got all messy and wrinkled, but a half dozen times they shimmied onstage and played their hearts out.
I NEVER FEEL like we’re really on a tour ’til we hit Richmond. The wide streets feel different, slow and empty, and then I know we’ve left NYC/New Jersey/Philly/Baltimore/DC That turnpike shit is the ugliest anywhere.
“Mom, I Gave the Cat Some Acid” was the funny industrial rock song by Happy Flowers we covered tonight when we played with them. They covered Sonic Youth’s “Catholic Block” and wailed all over us, ’cause they’re so fucking cute. There were a couple guys from Fishbone hanging out, trying to be funnier than anyone else. One guy was trying to impress me, telling me what neighborhood he comes from in L.A. He said that he could be making a lot of money selling crack, but he preferred to play music. I really felt like saying to him, “Yeah, so fucking what, I’m a girl and here’s my ghetto pal.”
Chapel Hill, 9/15
THE CAT’S Cradle was packed and too hot to remember anything. The last time we played in Chapel Hill, ’82, it was the old Cat’s Cradle, which was filled with the kind of dreariness that comes from redneck bars.
That was our first tour, us and the Swans. Yeah, we thought we were hot shit. (We had a record out and had played CBGB, the Mudd Club, and Danceteria.) It was raining and sad as hell, and the headlining Swans played their set to six jeering cowboys. Chapel Hill is one of the hippest places on earth to play, but in 1982 we were too underground or something. Mike Gira, the leader of the Swans, introduced a song amid giggles and chants for “Freebird” by saying, “This next song is about getting buttfucked by a cop,” or something to that effect. We stood around waiting to see if Harry Crosby, then the English bass player for the Swans, who was as drunk as anyone, would feel the need to defend their honor. But nothing happened, a fitting end to a stupid evening.
All 10 of us piled into the van, and the Swans fought among themselves. Morale was very low, tempers short, and our expectations not as high as Mike’s, which is why they scream at one other. One night Mike and his drummer started strangling each other and calling each other “Dickhead” and “Asshole.” Meanwhile everyone else is crammed around them trying to mind his or her own business, being really cool.
ON THE DRIVE from Athens to Atlanta there’s this great snow-cone stand run by a six-year-old who offers a million different flavors — poppy seed or corn dog. for instance. We’ve totally given up on Athens, where we played twice and nobody came. The first time was the night Gira jumped off the stage and pushed someone who was pogoing. Mike thought the guy was a poser who was making fun of him. In reality he was a nerd, and Mike had never seen a nerd before.
We played at the Metroplex in Atlanta. As wholesome as Athens likes to think it is, Atlanta is self-consciously decadent. For instance, when my bass amp broke during the set, I felt pressured to go through the motions, pretending that sound was still blasting out, dry-humping as it were. Someone in the audience shouted, “Play some fucking noise, that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? Stop complaining that the PA isn’t loud enough.” This is the kind of expert who will later review the show, complaining that no one stuck a drill up his butt.
Anyway, Atlanta used to have a super bad reputation as an evil punk scene, lots of kids hanging out and slashing the tires of touring bands, a real pit. Thurston tried to discourage his sister, Susan, from coming to the Metroplex. He must’ve thought we were gonna suck, or that he had to protect her. Thurston is really hung up about having to protect women, must be his upbringing. (Thurston and I even had a Catholic wedding.) He told Susan she’d be raped and murdered if she came. A handsome redhead, 30, the mother of four, she ignored him and appeared at the club with a camera around her neck, gasping to their cousins, “God, I’m the only nerd here!” Someone asked Susan for her autograph.
We stayed at her house and awoke to food flying around the room and babies crawling all over us. I know many people think we indulge in twisted sex and ingest massive amounts of drugs on tour, and of course we do. But I’ll always remember Susan, standing in the driveway with the kids and waving good-bye.
ON OUR WAY to Dallas, we just melt, sleep, and nag our drummer Steve Shelley about driving too slow and Thurston for driving too much like he plays guitar. Lee Ranaldo is holding his movie camera out the window again, and Terry Pearson our sound man is ripping thru another rock ‘n’ roll autobiography. He can read one in 10 minutes. Suzanne Sasic is also with us.
Suzanne is our T-shirt vendor and runs the lighting board. Tomboyish, but with long red hair, she wears spurs and keeps her money in her boots. Her penchant for wearing glitter and silver combined with her almost translucent skin are other reasons we call her our goddess of light. Suzanne and I sit in the last row of the van and complain about something or other or just voice our opinions in general. No one ever listens to us. It’s so far back, what with the windows open and stereo blasting, that we have to shout to be heard. “Turn that shit off.” “Stop the car I have to pee.” Thurston complains that we’re always mumbling.
Suzanne has a diet that’s a challenge to accommodate. She won’t eat anything green, except guacamole, and will only eat the middle of various foods like pancakes and cheese omelettes. (She hates the egg part.) Spaghetti, chocolate, and orange juice are staples. I’m writing this as a warning for all the boys across the country who write to ask who the vixen with the devastating eyes is. Does she care? No, she’s a heartbreaker. Just send obscure vinyl, After Eights, and forget the rest.
THERE ARE these kids here — the Neurotic Family Production Company — who have an inscribed cake (“SONIC LIFE”) made for us every time we play one of their shows. Last time we played there with Das Damen, and they’re going, “You guys suck, I can’t believe they made you a cake.”
The nicer the promoter, the better the food, the worse the gig is usually, except New York gigs, which don’t need any reason to suck. Our shows in Europe tend to be less exciting for this reason.
MISJUDGING the drive from Paris, we’re about six hours late for a live radio broadcast at one of those state-of-the-art radio stations. I like to think it was Carlos’ s fault, our booking agent/tour manager in Europe. Carlos is a tall, gangly, soft-spoken friend of ours who came into the job of booking bands through social work. (Holland gives government subsidies to its rock clubs.) When we’re together our stereotypes of one another become more pronounced; he is the self-righteous, hard-working, Dutch manager, and we’re the spoiled, self-centered, American rock assholes. In Europe, we’re almost always late. In America we’re pretty self-sufficient.
The most fun thing about having Carlos around is listening to the way he tries to shame us. “I don’t want to, I don’t want to,” he’ll say, rolling his head from side to side. He has met or heard about every wasted performer on the European circuit, and he still thinks we’re bad when we want to slop for bangles and candy. We find it essential to stop everywhere to exercise our right as Americans to spend freely. To tour is to shop. This drives Carlos crazy.
Anyway, we get to the radio station in Geneva very late, but they still want us to play, which is unfortunate. Carlos is disappointed in our attitude. We started complaining about having to do the show when we found out we weren’t getting paid. And it’s the same old story about how we’ll end up with a high quality live recording, but we already know it’s gonna be lame because it’s a dead room and we’ll be playing in front of five Swiss people bobbing their heads and smiling politely.
So of course they have a great spread of pâté, cheeses, and smoked ham. We feel like slobs surrounded by this plush equipment and stark beige environment, quiet as a bomb shelter. From the first note it’s a disaster. Thurston starts whispering obscenities over the intro to “Cotton Crown.” We feel like jerks, so pretty soon Thurston is swearing new lyrics to all the songs, and no one stops us. (Some of this session did end up on the B-side of Master=Dik.)
Switzerland was the only place I ever had my ass bitten by someone in the audience. I’d turn my back, and the guy would jump up and bite me, and I’d have to fight him off. When he kept doing it Thurston kicked a glass in his face. It really destroyed the mood.
THERE WAS A point when I started getting sickened by the violence onstage. Thurston’s fingers would swell up all purple and thick from banging his guitar. Usually I never know what’s happening on stage, I would just see guitar-like objects whizzing through the air out of the corner of my eye. A couple of times Thurston pushed Lee into the audience, as the only way to end a song, but that was harmless fun.
At our first gig in Boston about four years ago, Conflict editor Gerard Cosloy, Forced Exposure‘s Jimmy Johnson, and this idiot fan named Billy were just about the only ones there. During the first sbng Billy picked up this broken drum stick that had flown onto the floor and threw it back. It speared into my forehead. At first I thought it had bounced off Thurston’s guitar. Shocked, I didn’t know whether to cry or keep playing, but then I just felt incredibly angry. It took a long time to resolve that incident, ’cause it really made me feel sick, violated, like walking to the dressing room after a set, having some guy say, “Nice show,” then getting my ass pinched as I walk away.
I blamed it on the music for awhile, because it did draw fans who really want to see you hurt yourself. It’s not that I don’t share similar expectations; there’s beauty in things falling apart, in the dangerous (sexual) power of electricity, which makes our music possible. But what was once a hazy fantasy has since clarified itself. I don’t want my blood to be entertainment.
When we most recently played the Channel in Boston, some kid threw a handful of firecrackers in my face. I threw down my bass and left the stage, and so did the rest of the band. We figured out what happened and went back on to finish the set, while the bouncers were throwing the kid out. I was actually beginning to feel sorry for him, probably a misplaced Aerosmith fan.
Naugatuck, Connecticut, 10/24
THERE’S NOTHING like Naugatuck on a Saturday night. It was just about the last gig on the tour. The club is next to a Chinese restaurant in a shopping plaza. River’s Edge could have been filmed here. I’ve never seen so many metalheads cruising the roads. They make perfect sense, though, when you look at the barren trees, the discount store, all this desolation and quietness — you want to crank up something really loud and ugly. I couldn’t help wondering what the girls did while the boys were off playing with Satan. Maybe they also crave electricity, swirling around their heads, through their legs.
I know what they feel like. When Iggy Pop came onstage in Naugatuck (or was it London?) to sing “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” Lee and Thurston were ready to rock. I was amazed that he was so professional. He expressed the freakiness of being a woman and an entertainer. I felt like such a cream puff next him. I didn’t know what lo do, so I just sort of watched.
THIS GUY writes me letters. He tells me up front he’s been hospitalized for mental disturbances several times and asks that I stop sending messages to him through our music. Guys like this take over your whole life if you give them even a smidgen of attention. So if you read this, baby, stop sending those letters. ♦