PRINT Summer 1986


Sonic Youth—under the counter, over the top.

SONIC YOUTH TRIES TO START fires in a field of corn. Their name is pure corn; their new signature tune, “Expressway to Yr. Skull,” combines corny punk misogyny with ’60s psychedelia, and nothing could be cornier than that—when I first heard the song, the words drowned in nightclub acoustics, I thought it might be a cover of the Amboy Dukes’ 1968 Korn Klassic, “Journey to the Center of the Mind.” The way “Expressway” trails out of a noise rave-up with quiet feedback drifting into silence is as corny as the surge of suspense music when the detective stumbles on the body in a third-rate murder movie.

Rather than trying to lead an audience into a suspension of disbelief, cornball artists who get their own joke hope everyone will play along, or anyway enjoy the joke, which suggests that successful corn involves a suspension of embarrassment, or else a revel in it. Cornballs who don’t get the joke insist on meaning when it’s patent only clichés are present; in the supper club or the performance space, corn of this grade seeks transcendence in a heaven of pretentiousness. Sonic Youth can be pretentious, they can be embarrassing, and yet for all the corn in their music it’s never merely corny; clichés are almost always present, and so is the sense that whatever is set before you can blow up at any time. Corn is not unstable; Sonic Youth’s music is.

There was a moment in a show I saw last year—one moment only—when the music blew up. It was obvious the band members—guitarist and singer Thurston Moore, bassist and singer Kim Gordon, guitarist Lee Ranaldo, drummer Bob Bert (since replaced by Steve Shelley)—were trying to make it happen; moving out of a conventional rock-song structure, Moore was down on his knees hammering his guitar with a stick, Gordon was bent double. It was corny, and then it wasn’t. It was shocking, and purely musical: you forgot the contortions of the performers and felt the room fly apart. Bits of sound turned into objects; there was one great explosion, and a thousand specific explosions inside of it.

You could see it happen in the air. This is what the Big Bang must have been like, I thought; every sound leaped away from every other. It was scary, it was thrilling, and it made the rest of the show a disappointment. No band can make this happen at will—create a moment in which everything is present, and nothing holds—but I think this is what Sonic Youth is after. Their five-year career as a pop group (or a downtown-New York “noise-music” band) (or an arty punk quartet with a fixation on Charles Manson) can be seen as a pursuit of absolute moments of dissolution supported by a conventional structure: the postpunk version of the music business, which at best means hard-to-find records on small independent labels, tours in clubs, radio play on college stations, cover-story interviews in former fanzines now struggling toward regular publication schedules, sub-rosa hits on dubious charts. The Sonic Youth album that scored in the UK indie top 20 this spring illustrates just how uncertain any pursuit launched in this pop half-world has to be.

The record at first suggests that—any ephemeral, absolute moments aside—Sonic Youth has arrived: the packaging of this double live lp is gleaming, by far the classiest the band has ever had. On the outside covers, full-color jack-o’-lanterns refer to the band’s spring single, “Halloween,” and to the sleeve of the previous Sonic Youth album, Bad Moon Rising, which featured a scarecrow topped with a burning pumpkin head; the motif is continued on the four disc labels, turning it into a logo. From the photos on the inside sleeves to the intricate, imaginative liner art, the production strikes a perfect balance between the cultish and the deluxe. Distribution, too, seems better than with the band’s earlier records: you can find this set from California to the Midwest to Boston to the UK. There are only two problems: (l) it’s impossible to know what the album is called, let alone who issued it (the title might be This Time, the Last Time, and Here’s to the Next Time, or The Sonic Youth Sound Experience, or Not 1 (But 2), or Walls Have Ears, which might also be the name of the record company, which might also be oh-whoa-yo), and this is because (2) the album is a bootleg, illegal, released without the knowledge or consent of the band. Since it comes in a numbered edition of 2,000, with all further pressings barred by legal action on the part of Sonic Youth, one can conclude the album became a hit on the British independent charts by virtue of selling approximately 50 copies a week.

The package speaks in tones of glamor and success; it turns out to have ephemerality coded in its gloss. Yet both as package and as music, this is the most complete and vivid picture of Sonic Youth available. The melodrama of those blazing pumpkins gives the corn in the grooves a momentary, first-spin authority; it’s up to the rest of the music to validate it, and it does. The bootleg tapes can’t capture the complexity, or define the intentions and accidents, of a moment in which Sonic Youth make a room fly apart, but they can capture the band’s negating impulse, its will to function as a sort of sonic corrosive—and that may be as much of itself as Sonic Youth will ever get on record.

You can hear this best—hear it as a corrosive drama—on side “not 2 B.” First there’s “Expressway to Yr. Skull” as corn, this is the field, which is a potential field of action. Then comes “Spahn Ranch Dance,” one of two versions of “Death Valley ’69,” Sonic Youth’s Manson song. Now the band begins to reach for dissolution; they press hard, and fall short. The violent interjections of confusion and glee (“I had to hit it”) (“I couldn’t go faster”) (“You had sand in your mouth”) (“Sadie, I love it!”) seem to come straight from the dead souls of the Mansonoids, you’re in the death room with the bodies at your feet, but the song is too well made to fragment; you’re never unaware that the power in the performance is an effect someone decided to produce.

“‘Blood on Brighton Beach’” is the realization, or antirealization, of all that’s gone before; it wouldn’t hit half so hard without the progressively successful failures that precede it. This is the worst-recorded number on the album: all you can hear is a guitar, and Gordon’s sore-throat voice far behind it, pulling away from it—but just as on stage Gordon-as-bassist seems to center and direct the other musicians, she dominates here. The pace is fast, scattered. Reserves of doubt, loathing, terror, and perversity are summoned, exhausted, and superseded: you can’t understand more than a stray word, and while it’s plain something extraordinary is happening, you don’t know what it is. Every moment is strong enough to make you wonder how another can follow it; it doesn’t make sense that the performance can be sustained even for the few minutes it lasts. Limits burn up: the jack-o’-lanterns on the package grin like cannibals. What they eat is whatever you expected.

The strangest aspect of this remarkably constructed album, taken from perhaps a dozen different concerts, is not musical at all. On song after song, the band members are closing a show: “Thanks, goodnight.” “The power’s off, see ya.” “That’s it, goodbye.” “See you again.” “This is the last song.” This may be the bootlegger’s joke; repeated over and over, it becomes a blankly consistent theme of the record itself, until it both deflates the performances and throws them into a very queer light. After “‘Blood on Brighton Beach’”—all across the baleful surfaces of the album—it can shock you into realizing that what you heard was just a show.

Greil Marcus contributes to The Journal of Country Music. His music column appears monthly in Artforum.