Sonic Youth

Record stores used to be a big deal. There was, for example, the one between 77th and 78th streets on Broadway near where I grew up, which had a sizable collection of what would now be considered classic rock standards, a generous cutout bin of $1 cheapies, and a couple of guys behind the counter who could be counted on to share their thoughts on your purchase. (I still remember the warning I got from one of them about John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s split LP Live Peace in Toronto 1969: “Don’t put on Side Two, it sounds like one long scratch.” This was a very 1982 Rock Guy Opinion.) And in the days before instant global distribution of everything, going to the local record store was a big adventure when visiting another city.

I don’t remember the name of the Washington, D.C. record store I visited one day in late 1989, or why exactly I was flipping through the Neil Young CDs when I already had pretty much all of his albums that were then in print. I do remember spotting the compilation tribute album The Bridge, and being intrigued enough about the names of the bands on the back, or just of the concept of younger bands covering Neil Young songs, that I bought it.

Looking at those band names today, I’m not entirely sure which ones I recognized; I’m not entirely sure how they were selected for the project, even. There were a few that would go on to greater acclaim once indie rock exploded in the early ’90s (Soul Asylum, The Flaming Lips, Pixies), plus some that defied explanation or even description: The cover of “Mr. Soul” by Bongwater, a band that featured actress/performance artist/future Starfleet admiral Ann Magnuson on vocals and doomed Shimmy Disc records impresario Kramer on bass and tape loop manipulation, is especially bonkers, with its intro of bizarre sound samples and fading-into-the-background vocals. And I remember cracking up laughing as soon as Dinosaur Jr.’s take on the normally-acoustic-guitar-folk “Lotta Love” came blasting out of my speakers, and not stopping laughing until I’d listened to it twice more. (One of the changes wrought by the advent of CDs that you don’t hear talked about so much: It made listening to one track over and over way more of a thing. Also made referring to songs as “tracks” more of a thing.)

The name that most likely caught my eye on the tracklist, though, was Sonic Youth. I doubt I had ever heard any of their songs at that point — I was probably only familiar with them as a name that popped up periodically in the Village Voice’s annual Pazz and Jop rankings, which I dutifully eyeballed even if I didn’t know who they all were. But it was a selling point all the same: These aren’t just no-name bands covering Neil Young, these are bands I should be checking out because they could be interesting.

Sonic Youth’s cover song of choice certainly was: “Computer Age,” one of the most unloved songs in the Neil Young catalog, a relic of the entire album he sang through a vocoder that made his voice unrecognizable in a quixotic attempt to convey his disabled son’s difficulties communicating. The quartet of Kim Gordon, Steve Shelley, Lee Ranaldo, and Thurston Moore, as I learned from The Bridge‘s liner notes (poring over liner notes used to be a big deal, too), turned the song into a propulsive straight-ahead rock song for starters, then eventually dissolved into a squall of barely controlled noise.

It wasn’t my favorite track on the album, but it piqued my curiosity enough that the next year I immediately bought their next album Goo, which also featured a striking album cover by what I later learned was legendary punk rock illustrator Raymond Pettibon. (It piqued Neil Young’s, too, as he went on to invite Sonic Youth to open for him on his 1991 tour, where they were relentlessly booed by Neil’s fans who clearly hadn’t bought The Bridge.) Nearly two decades later, I would see Sonic Youth play in Battery Park and buy a shirt with an equally excellent WFMU-themed version of the Goo artwork.

There’s a theory that the first album you hear by a band is most likely to end up your favorite, but Goo might have ended up that for me regardless. Its first five songs are all monsters: “Dirty Boots,” “Tunic,” “Mary-Christ,” “Kool Thing” (with a maybe-intentionally-uncomfortable Chuck D cameo that only endeared the band to me more, as I was playing Fear of a Black Planet to death at the time), “Mote,” all ablaze with raw energy and contorted guitar tunings. The one that had me reaching for the repeat button, though, was “Tunic (Song for Karen),” a haunting elegy talk-sung by Kim in the voice of Karen Carpenter, ascending to rock-and-roll heaven on the wings of her bulimia while reciting her mother’s misguided admonition: “Honey, you look so underfed.” If you want a primer on the perils of music stardom and toxic patriarchy all wrapped up into one ball of pain and tuneful noise, I dare you to do better.

You could say much the same for Kim’s memoir Girl in a Band, which recasts the entire history of Sonic Youth, so much of which centered on her seeming storybook punk-rock marriage to Thurston, as a cautionary tale about the collision of the music industry’s veneration of man-childdom and the male gaze’s obsession with women who are expected to hold everything together, either as band mom or onstage sex symbol or both. The end result: betrayal, resentment, breakup. Sonic Youth played their final show in 2011, not long after I saw them in Prospect Park at a tempestuous show where you could feel the bad vibes coming off the stage, and the crowd was raucous and frantic, verging on ugly, rushing the front of the pit and shouting over the music.

I bought Girl in a Band only recently, after I spotted it on a trip to Amoeba Records in San Francisco; I left with both it and a huge stack of albums that I probably could have bought as easily and cheaply online, but for whatever reason hadn’t. I’d heard people rave about the book for years before I bought it; for that matter, I’d heard people rave about Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On for years without thinking to pick up a copy, until there it was in front of me in the bin. Record stores, the few that remain worthwhile, are still for me a big deal.