Book Review: Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth

Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth

By David Browne
(Da Capo Press)

Rock lore abounds with stories of pivotal yet scarcely attended happenings. It's said that of the few who bought the Velvet Underground's debut record all went on to start a band - the same of the sparse crowd that witnessed the Sex Pistols' first show at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. The history of Sonic Youth has no such eureka moment. The band's members arrived in New York at the close of the '70s - the decade when rock and roll in all its forms arguably peaked. And their journey, meticulously documented in Goodbye 20th Century, unfolds much like a Sonic Youth song, slowly and deliberately, over the span of 27 years, 14 albums, and 5 drummers.

From Sonic Youth's early evolution in New York's avant-garde downtown arts community through its present-day status as revered alt-culture icons, things like record collecting, married life, and long studio hours fill the bulk of the band's time, and Goodbye 20th Century. Browne follows the band's business dealings with dodgy overseas managers (who at one point release a record without the band's consent), their steady hobnobbing with New York's cultural elite (Sophia Coppola, Spike Jonze, everyone famous in the '90s, etc.), and the various awkward peaks like Lollapalooza and the band's "grunge" years.

Take note: Sonic Youth's story is largely unglamorous. And rightfully so. While excising rock from its blues roots, SY also managed to create a new paradigm of the rock star - a tempered, even conservative, approach that ultimately rewarded the band's consistent stability and output. Flaubert wrote "Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work." Sonic Youth, echoing that sentiment, is all of the above.

Browne digs deeply into the band's democratic decision-making process, which gives each distinct personality ample voice. As with any band, tensions do inevitably arise, but disagreements here don't last long. Maybe it's because the members of Sonic Youth are so unwaveringly likable. And they're all characters in their own right: Thurston Moore's continuous joking; Kim Gordon's focused creative input and reserved demeanor; Lee Renaldo's technical prowess; and Steve Shelley's stabilizing influence. It's almost impossible to hate the underachievers now crowned by many as the kings of rock. (Former-Voice critic Robert Christgau called Sonic Youth "the best band in the universe" only a few years ago).

But even obvious Sonic Youth devotees like Browne acknowledge that much of the band's edge came from its ability to crib the prevailing theories and sounds of the early '80s scene into a relatively salable package. Glenn Branca, the avant-garde composer who enlisted both SY guitarists in his guitar-drone orchestra at one point, quips, "Sonic Youth gave [the public] what I had, but sugarcoated it." Several other contemporaries - from Lydia Lunch to Rhys Chatham- could make the same claim.

Branca's comment also brings out the underground-mainstream tension behind Sonic Youth. That the band has been on both SST and Geffen, a major label, (and even more recently released its only 'best of' to-date through coffee-overlord Starbucks) speaks to its complicated DIY/corporate ethics. Both Moore and Shelley maintain their own independent record labels, which continue to release notably weird and underground records (ecstaticpeace.com and smellslikerecords.com), not mention the band's SYR series of experimental collage, noise, and improv recordings.

As much as they took from the scene, Sonic Youth have been giving back ever since. It would be impossible to miss Sonic Youth's influence on albums like Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, mixed by Jim O'Rourke, who served as Sonic Youth's bassist and recording engineer during the early '00s.

It could also be argued (as Goodbye does) that Sonic Youth's style - the "uncool" cool - is nearly as important as its music. Browne notes that anyone who's ever worn an ironic t-shirt owes a debt to Thurston Moore and Sonic Youth. As such Goodbye 20th Century is a worthy history for most, if not all, t-shirt wearers. As Sonic Youth progresses, I hope David Browne keeps up in subsequent editions.