Disclaimer: It's hard to talk about Sonic Youth and not sling cliches or, on the other hand, sound like a pretentious wank. Cut me some slack if either of those happens here; I'm going to try to talk about them anyway.
Goodbye 20th Century, author David Browne's biography of Sonic Youth, is an epic tome about one of the most respected yet still unsung bands of alternative rock. Of all their contemporaries, few are still together, not counting reunited bands, and fewer still maintain the kind of integrity that Sonic Youth and each of its members does. Seriously, at this point it's basically them and R.E.M., and while the latter are one of my favorite bands, it hasn't been worth listening to one of their new albums since Monster. Their story is longer than you'd think (Kim Gordon is my mom's age!), and Browne tells it compellingly, getting great interviews out of the band, its various friends, family, and colleagues past and present. Anecdotes, stories, and 'huh?' moments abound (Gordon produced Hole's first record? What?). But this book contains more than the story of Sonic Youth and its so-cool-I-want-them-to-adopt-me members. I assumed, as is the case with many rock bios, that this was a fans-only book, and that may be true. But the true magic in G2C lies in the first 100 or so pages. Sonic Youth's story begins in the very late 70's/very early 80's, a time when punk had broken down, no-wave had stepped in to fill the gap, and all bets were off. New York City during these early days of post-punk was a fascinating place, and no one has set it up better on the page than David Browne has in the start of Goodbye 20th Century. We get to see Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Lee Ranaldo (permanent drummer Steve Shelley joined the band a bit later on down the line) interact with downtown luminaries from Lydia Lunch to Glenn Branca to Fab Five Freddy to Jean-Michel Basquiat. I may be biased towards New York City, but this book is required reading for anyone interested in the history of American rock music.
I'm just now winding my way to the end of Goodbye 20th Century. I was never a huge fan of SY until I saw them play at McCarren Park Pool in the summer of 2006. They were opening for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (more on that later) but they completely blew that band out of the water. After seeing the calm collected Kim Gordon, lead YYY Karen O's set just smacked of overcompensation. That night, Sonic Youth made me a lifelong fan. I very slowly started listening to their albums, because for me that is the only way to listen to this band. Whether it is because of the conflicting personality types in the band, their writing and recording method, or a concerted effort on their part to really make complex recordings, listening to a SY record is more about unraveling than straightforward listening. It's hard to explain. But sit down with a copy of Goo, or Daydream Nation, or Sonic Nurse for that matter and just listen. It's not always pretty, in fact, it's rarely pretty. But after a while the noise will subside and your brain will be able to comb through the wreckage. Sonic Youth is more an exercise in listening than anything else; this makes their albums more rewarding than most.
The thing about Sonic Youth, though, is that even though their music is complex, challenging stuff, the band manages to remain real. Each of their four core members pursue side projects in and out of the music industry, from fashion to film to publishing, and yet pretension is never the air they give off. These are four down to earth individuals. Goodby 2oth Century makes the case that while Sonic Youth never scored a #1 hit, never had a best-selling album, never had a video in heavy rotation on MTV or even college radio, really, their influence and guidance on the alt-rock community from the 80's to today cannot be understated. Even beyond all the artists that Sonic Youth helped break, (Nirvana, Chloe Sevigny, Spike Jonze, Raymond Pettibon, Cat Power, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, just to name a few) Sonic Youth greatly influenced the world by throwing all expectations out the window. If you keep working on what you're doing, letting your artistic instincts guide you, you'll make strong work. This mindset has sustained the band. They never became the biggest band in the world, but you know what? That happened to Nirvana, and now Kurt Cobain is dead. Meanwhile Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon are still making music, working on side projects, supporting the community, raising a family, writing books, and just generally living out their dreams. It seems like more than a fair trade-off to me.
And if this sort of stuff really interests you, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Goodbye 20th Century.
Goodbye 20th Century [amazon]