Battery Park, NYC: July 4th 2008
Sonic Youth imploded in late 2011 as Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore announced their plans to divorce after 27 years of marriage, and an even longer period together. It eventually emerged that Moore had been cheating on Gordon and was managing to split his time between their home in Northampton, MA, and London, where he had fallen for book editor, Eva Prinz, who was also married. Oh yes, it got messy. For me, a die-hard SY fan since I was a teenager, this felt like a kick in the head. It’s weird how even those of us deeply cynical of celebrity culture still get sucked into it. I had long seen Moore and Gordon as an example of a successful couple, one that managed to live together, work together, and maintain a relationship as they got older. They were, in other words, a model.
I am still pissed at Moore all these years later, he ruined my favourite band. And whilst his solo stuff maintains echos of Sonic Youth, it’s not the same thing. He needs Lee Ranaldo’s guitars, Gordon’s bass, guitar and voice. Drummer Steve Shelley has played on most of Moore’s solo stuff.
So this year, Matador, their record label, released a live recording of late SY at Battery Park in NYC on the 4th of July in 2008. This must’ve been a most excellent concert, Sonic Youth live, Battery Park, a sunny July day. Sonic Youth were most certainly a New York City band, emerging from the city’s No Wave scene in the late 70s/early 80s. Their music remained rooted in the city, and their 2002 album, Murray Street, was named after their recording studio, Echo Canyon, at 51 Murray Street, about three blocks from the World Trade Center. Recording of the album was halted by the 9/11 attack. As Gordon reveals in her memoir, Girl in a Band, this is what precipitated her and Moore’s decision to leave NYC for the more sedate Northampton, Western Massachusetts’ hipster paradise. In fact, Northampton and the surrounding area is full of refugees from 9/11, even today.
At any rate. This album is many things at once: comforting, depressing, and kind of a let down. It’s kind of a let down because listening to this, and the beautiful noise Ranaldo, Moore, Gordon, Shelley, and bassist Mark Ibold (ex-Pavement) made on stage, I realize that by 2008, they were a machine. I suppose this isn’t a bad thing. This was around the time I saw Sonic Youth for the last time, the first time had been on the Goo tour in 1990 or 1991. Over those 15-18 years, Sonic Youth went from pure and utter chaos and abandoned glee on stage, creating vicious walls of noise that Moore, Ranaldo and Gordon attempted to scale with their vocals, by the end, they had moved from these long jam sessions, these unpredictable turns, towards more structured songs, and more controlled chaos. The upside to this, though, is that it meant that they were a more predictable live show, and perhaps more professional. And it’s not like they pulled an Eric Clapton and unplugged and destroyed their music; they were a formidable band.
So it is perhaps unfair to feel let down by late-era Sonic Youth. I know the last time I saw them, I was excited and came away happier than the proverbial pig in shit. And my ears ringing something fierce, even with protection.
Battery Park sees them draw heavily on their back catalogue, particularly their indie epic, Daydream Nation (1988), which many regard as their finest hour. For me, it’s up there, but I prefer the scuzz and dirty of their 1992 album, the appropriately-named Dirty. At any rate, of the four tracks from Daydream Nation here, my favourite rendition is the two-thirds’ rendition of ‘Trilogy’ from the end of that album. Here we get a vicious rendition of ‘A) The Wonder’ and a similarly brilliant version of ‘B) Hyperstation.’ Apparently they played part ‘C) Eliminator, Jr.,’ but it’s not here. Instead, ‘Hyperstation’ leads into ‘Bull in the Heather’ from the overlook 1994 album, Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, and then Dirty’s opener, ‘100%’ before ending with the classic ‘Making the Nature Scene’ from their 1983 début album, Confusion is Sex. This is perhaps fitting, as the set and the album ((the album tracklist and the setlist vary wildly), begins with ‘She’s Not Alone,’ from the band’s 1982 début ep, EP. So we more or less go full circle with Sonic Youth in this set.
And given the almost obsessive archival nature of the band, I’m sure this won’t be the last we hear from them. But it is a nice reminder of all the reasons we loved Sonic Youth in the first place, even considering my irrational disappointment with the album.
But I maintain my right to still be pissed at Thurston Moore for blowing up my favourite band, dammit.