Musings on Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth

Have you ever immersed yourself in a book to the extent that you start to dream it? That’s what I’ve been doing lately while reading David Browne’s Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth.

The writing is so good that it’s making me change how I think. How to describe what I’ve learned… The book talks about the vicissitudes of making Sonic Youth in such a way that I could see the organic nature of it. Gain a drummer, lose a drummer. Change practice space, play in a festival, attract 20 people. Get a new guitarist, go on tour, sleep on floors. Suffer, make art, strive for a sound. Meet people, network, hussle, and above all … don’t lose focus or compromise a vision for anyone, including a music label.

I really liked how this makes me think of creating art. Writing about music, I’ve thus far taken the band as a given, and anything they produce as the object of a music writer’s attention. This book caused me to realize just how much impact individuals have on their band, so that the final sound is as much a product of a particular person as it is the band as a whole. It was fascinating to see how sound changes with the addition or subtraction of a band member, and how the thing that carried Sonic Youth along to create lasting works of art were the clear artistic visions of the band members.

Other than that, the book had a few lovely human moments which revealed a simplicity and straightforwardness to Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s relationship that I hadn’t expected. It was sweet, so I’ll share:

The  time Kim Gordon proposed to Thurston Moore

“I felt everything was so drifty in our lives,” Gordon, who was thirty-one at the time, says. “I spent so much of my life not wanting to commit to things or analyzing things. I felt like I wanted to make a firm commitment.”

Since they’d been a couple for nearly four years, she suggested they close the deal.

Although [Moore] thought the issue might be raised at some point, the question was still, he recalls, “shocking, but I was into it. I had no doubt about it.”

The time someone grabbed Kim Gordon’s ass on stage:

During a show on an early European tour, an Italian fan reached out and grabbed Gordon’s butt during ‘Early American.’ Seeing what had happened, Moore grabbed the stick and metal pipe he’d been using on his guitar and slammed the fan’s hand. ‘He came backstage with a friend and acted like he was going to kill me or something,’ he recalls. ‘And I said, “Before you do anything: If you were playing music with your friend or wife onstage, and someone did that, what would you do?”’ The tension defused, the man skulked away.

~

So, in my Sonic Youth dream, I am a disembodied spirit in the crazy New York of the 80s, lurking in a cold and bathroomless practice space while the crash of feedback and endless guitars eddies around me. Thurston is staring down at whatever he’s doing with his broken drumstick to a beaten-up guitar, and Kim is in a corner looking off into the distance, meditative, comfortable with her own silence. Just listening.

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