St. Losers

Sonic Youth's on tour, and once again St. Louis isn't on the itinerary. Why does punk rock's most formidable institution slight us?

Jul 17, 2002 at 4:00 am
And so to put the punchline before the joke, to douse all hopes before they can be aroused by 1,200 words of purply praising prose, Lee Ranaldo -- or, more accurately, the electronic keystrokes made by a transatlantic Lee Ranaldo -- reveals why Sonic Youth has bypassed St. Louis in recent years and why the band will be bypassing us again on its current tour: "Our U.S. booking agent has a long-standing vendetta against St. Louis due to a serious bout of unrequited love some years back, and it is his small knife into the heart of your fair city that keeps us from returning. Although we'd like to...."

Like to, schmike to -- just fucking come already! Some poor schmo comes up romantically empty-handed, and St. Louis is denied Sonic Youth's presence for years to come. History may be written by winners, but the future is shaped just as much by losers, as Sonic Youth's unloved booking agent proves.

The importance of history comes up frequently when one is dealing with Sonic Youth. With sixteen albums in twenty-one years (and a host of EPs, side projects and solo efforts), the band has plenty of past to sift through. Sonic Youth has outlasted the no-wave scene that brought the original four members together, the hardcore punk that swallowed no-wave, the alternative nation they helped midwife, the grunge revolution they watched burn out in surly adolescence and the current nameless, shiftless musical climate that seems ripe for takeover by someone or something (please let it be noisy phenomenon Sissy Spacek). Through it all, Sonic Youth continues to do what it's always done: release albums of strange and beautiful music that reflects the interests of the individual members, creating a body of work that runs parallel to all those movements but never seems to be of those movements. Sonic Youth has managed to survive and remain vital because it always remains Sonic Youth, regardless of the whims and vagaries of current pop culture.

It's long been a favorite critical parlor game to categorize Sonic Youth's albums along thematic lines -- Dirty is the grunge album, Bad Moon Rising the Manson album, Sister the science-fiction album and so on -- but Sonic Youth has never been as interested in playing along with the game as the critics and fans have. Until now, perhaps. Murray Street, the new album, is purported to be the second installment of a trilogy that interprets the cultural history of the band's Lower Manhattan home.

Purported to be, but not really, Ranaldo says: "Any history is made up of equal parts dream, memory, reflection and wish fulfillment. It's inevitable. And the filter of personal experience -- our NYC would not be someone else's. Although the rumored NYC trilogy we're meant to be in the midst of is actually a fiction dreamed up by our biographer Byron Coley, it is certainly true that our last record [NYC Ghosts & Flowers] was quite consciously a meditation of sorts on cultural activity in New York City over the past century, and particularly from about mid-century onward."

Ranaldo goes on to clarify what the album might be about -- or not. "The new record is not, to my mind, so New York-centric, although the title certainly is." (Murray Street is the location of the band's studio.) "Maybe that alone grounds the record in a specific time and place, which is our city -- both before and after the events of last September. So right away, between these two albums, we've got NYC past and NYC in the present tense. Possibly the next record will be a look ahead? Nobody knows ... or maybe Byron does, but it's generally not the kind of conceptual conceit we work from. Sometimes, though, someone on the outside sees these things more clearly than we on the inside, so it may yet come to be. Certainly on some level all our music could be related to our lives in the city, its fast pace and constantly shifting nature, its noise and chaos and artistic achievements."

That fast pace and shifting nature, along with the noise and chaos and artistic achievements and historic retrospection, are evident throughout Murray Street's 42 minutes, but they're best exemplified in Ranaldo's song "Karen Revisited." A scratching guitar riff, off-kilter in the way all of Sonic Youth's custom-tuned guitar riffs are, chugs under Ranaldo's beat-poetic memories of Karen, a girl who's "not in our history books/lost her mind but not her looks." Propelled aloft by feedback squeals and amp warbles, Karen is remembered in the fantastic moment of a long-ago summer kiss, pricked and prodded along by Steve Shelley's impatient snare. A lazy guitar drone becomes a repetitive figure that whirls through gauzy layers of hum and static, eventually coalescing into chiming guitar-bells and rolling drums. The movement is seamless, unconscious, wordless, a flow of sound that dissipates in a smattering of spectral applause and peters out like the end of a receding cloudburst. In eleven minutes of music, Sonic Youth has traversed the imaginary gulf separating pop structure from avant-noise -- but then, that's what Sonic Youth has always done. "Karen Revisited" would not sound out of place on, say, EVOL or Daydream Nation because it's a continuation of the music Sonic Youth was creating fifteen years ago. If the music is more crepuscular now, well, there's more past to look back on now. The sense of reflection that infuses Murray Street and its predecessor may be a thematic hook to hang critical hats on, or it might be a sign of a wiser, more thoughtful Sonic Youth.

That Sonic Youth still sounds like Sonic Youth at all is remarkable, given that all their gear was stolen during the last tour. Just being able to play older songs again meant rebuilding an armada of vintage amplifiers and guitars and then restringing and retuning everything. Ranaldo concurs that the loss of the equipment was a tragedy but notes that some songs would have been lost along the way, regardless of the theft: "Our working method is such that the more new songs we write, the more tunings we inevitably invent, and therefore the more guitars we need to carry on the road to continue doing a wide range of songs. At some point this number reaches critical mass, and some tunes just have to be eliminated for purely space/weight reasons (shipping gear is expensive!).... On our current tour we are making an effort to relearn some songs we haven't played in quite some time. As we don't play in standard tuning, this means having to remember what tunings they were in and what the fingering positions were like, etc. -- which can sometimes be quite daunting. But we're trying. I do wish we had a larger repertoire on any given tour, so we had more 'old' songs to draw from, but partly it's down to matters of space and time."

Ah, yes, the current tour: This brings us to the present, where space and time collide to make the now and the ever-possible future. Sonic Youth will grace Chicago's Metro for two shows on August 17 and 18, and then history's ripples will drive them to Minneapolis and on to the West Coast. St. Louis remains mired in Sonic Youth's past, the town that broke a stranger's heart. At least we have that shared history and the promise of future albums to make our loneliness bearable. Come back, Sonic Youth. We miss you.