I paint houses with my dad. I like painting. I’m not too crazy about having to spend time with my dad and I really hate the conservative radio shit he has blaring all the time, but the job pays well so I’ve put up with it. Probably quit in the next few months, but anyway, t’other morning there was a musical bumper between radio shits which caught my attention. After a moment I realized it was the intro to “Kool Thing” by Sonic Youth.
Can we all just step into the Way-Back Machine for a bit? Destination: 1985. I drove into town with a handful of lawn-mowing money to spend at the record store downtown. Flipping through the bins, I found Sonic Youth’s Evol. I’d heard of Sonic Youth and Evol was released by SST, so I figured it had to be hardcore. I bought it, went home and threw it on the turntable.
Not hardcore. I was thoroughly disgusted with the droney, art-damaged psychedelia dribbling out of the speakers. I listened to half of the first side, cursed the loss of eight bucks, shoved the lp on the shelf and went out to shoplift beer or listen to Black Flag on my Walkman or whatever I did.
Six months later, I was gathering a stack of records to trade in for store credit. I could usually get a decent return on shit that I picked up at yard sales – the first record I bought just to sell/trade to a record store was Billy Joel’s Glass Houses – and I usually had a couple albums that I’d bought new and didn’t like to return. I pulled out Evol and thought I might give it another spin before trading it in, just in case it didn’t suck as bad as I thought.
Friends, I don’t know what happened to my ears during the six months between my first and second listens to “Tom Violence”, but it was clearly something seismic. I must have learned to hear differently, grown a bit in my ability to grasp and appreciate nonpopular music. The second time through, I was totally blown away, riveted, transfixed. I couldn’t believe how amazing it was. Sonic Youth immediately became my favorite band. I blasted Evol daily, allowing the locked groove at the end to run on for half an hour or more. I got the record store guy to order Sonic Youth’s back catalog – Sonic Youth, Confusion Is Sex, and Bad Moon Rising. I started looking for other artsy/noisy bands. I liked Live Skull and Einsturzende Neubauten, but they somehow lacked something, possibly SY’s interest in American trash culture and classic rock, which I always assumed were brought in by Thurston Moore. Sonic Youth, man, they had the power to turn goat piss into gasoline. Sister was killer. I saw them once, supported by Jesus Lizard.
Then they signed to a major. I don’t remember which one – Geffen, maybe. “Kool Thing” was an alternative hit single. It was a good song. I really dug the feminist statement being made there and thought that having Chuck D do a guest bit was a clever idea. Still, I knew they’d sold out and that their days of making decent music were numbered. I was kinda bummed about it, but whaddaya gonna do? They had another couple releases – Dirty was a fine rock record. I bought Experimental, Jet Set shortly after it came out, gave it a listen and took it back with no regrets. I knew I’d never buy another SY release again. Actually, I did later pick up some of the things they put out on SY Records, installments 1-4 of their “Musical Perspectives” series. Those were pretty decent. Those allowed me to at least respect them for having some artistry for a few more years.
I still had some respect for SY then. When they would come up in conversation, I would say I loved their early stuff, and that I still respected them as musicians, but that I hadn’t really liked anything they’d released in a while. Mostly I just didn’t think about them much.
In ’10, my daughter was still nursing and I would take her to the library where her ma worked part-time for afternoon feedings. One day, I picked up a copy of Signal To Noise which had Sonic Youth on the cover. I read STN occasionally between issues of The Wire and I figured maybe SY had something going on. Unfortunately, they did. P.J. O’Rourke, who I find deplorable in many ways, had joined the band. They had just signed to a new label, a move which Kim Gordon hoped would allow them to sell more records. Thurston Moore, who I had always found to be the most likable member, went on some long monologue all about how SY had stopped trying to innovate years ago, how they just showed up at the studio and churned out the same product, how awesome it was to be in a comfortable, old band like the Grateful Dead. He actually said Sonic Youth was like the Grateful Dead.
That was it. That was the moment when I finally lost any and all respect for Sonic Youth. Sometime later, when they finally called it quits, I thought “Jesus, it’s about damn time.” Their process of selling out was a gradual one and I was somewhat blinded by the fondness I had for their early work, but I finally saw the light.
Sonic Youth sucks. Sonic Youth sucks so bad that their music is used as filer between a commercial for Fox News and the local traffic report on the AM station my dad listens to.
I do still enjoy some of the early stuff. “Freezer Burn/Now I Wanna Be Yr Dog” still rocks. Bad Moon Rising is a killer album. I’ve been thinking of covering “Satan Is Boring”. The songs where Gordon takes the lead vocal have started to seem tedious. Her monotone seemed interesting at first, but it became monotonous.
Signing to a major. That seems to be the beginning of the end for anybody. Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers, Pussy Galore, Royal Trux…so many great bands who sold their souls and turned to shit. The only exception I can think of is Tom Waits, who I still respect and admire even though I haven’t been really jazzed up about anything he’s done in a long time. And honestly, I don’t think it has to be a major label. Independent labels are like access roads to the shit superhighway. Sign to anybody and you’re pretty much saying “Here I am: ready for exploitation.” Jesus, there was a time when I thought Beck seemed like somebody I could hang out with; now he’s a rockstar, just a pair of wraparounds and a Christ-complex away from Bono.
I might consider working with a label bigger than the numerable micro-labels BDSR has worked with before. I’m not ruling it out. Nobody has expressed an interest and I don’t try to get their attention, but it could happen. On my terms. I doubt it ever will though. As much as I’d like more people to hear BDSR, I’m not motivated to put forth any effort to get some company to shill discs for me. I’m very happy putting stuff out through tiny bedroom labels and on Bandcamp and shit like that. And the music that I make – BDSR is frequently a group effort, but I do all the mixing and collaging, so I’m the final filter – is pretty raw, ragged and abrasive. I doubt that anything I put out would be useful for selling beer or tampons or sporty hybrid cars, so I’m pretty much protected by my own aversion to twee, formulaic shit to ever attract the attention of the music industry. Thank the Gods.
And that’s that.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.