I’ve found myself immersed in New York author David Browne’s new-to-paperback biography of Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century. Originally I picked it up in preparation for a book event I’m working on with WORD bookstore in Brooklyn on Sept 24 involving Browne, David Comfort, Greg Milner and Theo Kogan, but I’ve become absorbed in the super-conversational tone Browne uses to recount the earliest, haphazard way in which SY came together and their methodical crawl into the temple of noise.
Honestly, my first Sonic Youth album was Sonic Nurse. I know, I know, I know, I’m losing instant credibility here (the first time I ever heard my favorite SY song, “Mote”? Yeah, it was the Faint covering it live), but that one record-specifically its first song, the propulsive Kim Gordon vehicle “Pattern Recognition”-immediately caused me to start buying up as much of their back catalog as I could, and I’ve kept up with them since then.
Their newer stuff interests me less and less (Rather Ripped was slow-burning but soft (ironically, given the title) and The Eternal is a bit rote but may still yield some undiscovered classic), and, when I saw them live for the first time touring Sonic Nurse , it was the raging, blistered classic from their vaults “Brother James”, a song I had obviously been entirely unfamiliar with until that very moment Kim Gordon dropped to her knees on stage, bellowing, literally bellowing, the line “take my hand you might as well/we’re going STRAIGHT TO HELL”, that most floored me.
Forget the “dancing about architecture” stuff-I love reading about music. In some cases, like with James Brown or Animal Collective, I love reading about some music more than listening to the music itself. With the latter example, I scour fan forums, poring over accounts of Animal Collective fans having near-transcendent experiences with the band, and find the music to fall totally flat (kinda like if Dave Matthews discovered a sampler). But with SY and Goodbye 20th Century, I’m finding myself, oddly, falling in love with this band’s history through Browne’s fly-on-the-wall, hard-and-fast accounts of the way the band fell together, Thurston and Kim’s whirlwind marriage, their near-comical and Spinal Tap-esque inability to retain a drummer, etc-and, more importantly, falling in love with the old, old, old Sonic Youth stuff.
When “The Burning Spear”‘s described in Goodbye 20th Century as the closest thing to a dance hit SY could have ever had, I had to seek it out. Noise+dance=win, to me.
“The Burning Spear” is absolutely amazing, and a song I’d never have hunted down if not for Goodbye, 20th Century, which I think is a greater literary testament to the band than, say, Dave Eggers writing 100 words on “Tuff Gnarl” for Starbucks. I also wrote a little about one of my other major Goodbye 20th Century revelations, SY’s “Ciccone Youth” project, over at Resonator. Sonic Youth’s history is a treasure trove of revelations for me (not the least of which is: Kim Gordon? Hot/amazing right now, used to be EVEN MORE OF A BABE), and I’ll always owe Goodbye 20th Century for the guided tour.