For most of my music-writing, well, let’s call it a career, I tackled mostly what interested me, a real luxury. But then, my personal life eroded, imploded, exploded and, finally, coded, ultimately taking my full-time job with it when I beat an Aieeeeee! banshee path out of the mountains of western N.C., and suddenly, freelancing was all there was left.
After all this time, I still like how this particular piece came out, overall. Considering what a mess my life was at the time I was asked to write this, that’s no small wonder. In fact, it’s kinda funny that my 2004 freelance stuff was, by and large, among the best stuff I ever did for Mountain Xpress …
Originally published Aug. 18, 2004 | (c) Mountain Xpress, 2004
Two seminal NYC bands have opposite success traversing the very mountains they built
New York City’s storied music underground has presented us with some pretty vexing concerns:
• Was Nico really necessary? (I mean, really?)
• If noise architect Glenn Branca is so all-fired influential, then why couldn’t he keep protégé Alan Licht from writing prose?
• Did Joey Ramone’s mother have a chin?
Pause to discuss. Fight amongst yourselves. But know that you can’t ever really nail down history once it’s turned into myth.
And yet in the very immediate future in Asheville, you have the rare opportunity to settle once and for all two even more fundamental questions about Gotham’s trendy past:
• In music, isn’t emotion just overrated?
• What’s the worst thing you can do to a guitar?
Because The Orange Peel has booked, a mere three days apart, two of the leading lights from the second and third generations, respectively, of NYC’s avant-rock underground: Blondie, and Sonic Youth.
So break out some dancin’ shoes and a sneer, and let’s travel to where wildly tuned guitars get strung with baling wire, and where the air smells of sweat, arrogance, vomit and the old new future of rock ‘n’ roll.
Worms in the Big Apple
Must be something in the polluted water.
“The best bands come from New York,” Walter Schiefels of influential hardcore label Some Records has stated. “Not necessarily the biggest, but the most wonderful, innovative, influential bands, the real s**t for American music.”
What’s unsaid there is that, since as far back as the days of nightclub jazz, most of these influential musicians first came to NYC from Podunk, Wherever.
The Big Apple is where the Next Big Thing is always happening, to be replaced within a musical measure by the Next, Next Big Thing. So much incestuous talent, so rare the commercial success.
And nowhere has that been truer than in the Empire City’s avant-rock underground.
In the mid-’60s, the Velvet Underground formed around college friends Lou Reed (an actual New Yawker) and John Cale (a transplanted Welshman), quickly becoming the dark counterpoint to the folk forays going on over in Greenwich Village.
Next up, the vastly influential but mildly talented New York Dolls, in whom sleaze and glam collided (their look said cheap transvestite all over). David Johansen and the “boys” heralded the second wave of the late ’70s, the Lower East Side CBGB set: The Ramones, Television, Suicide, Talking Heads, The Theoretical Girls (with Branca, whose own record label would later release the first Sonic Youth EP).
And Blondie. The most commercially successful of the bunch.
But over the next decade, the New Wave artiness of David Byrne and Tom Verlaine was to be drowned out by the imploded art of No Wave — a return to the Velvets’ sonic squall, with bands like The Swans, Pussy Galore and DNA, and later, Love Child (with Licht) and Helmet.
And, of course, Sonic Youth. The most commercially successful of the bunch.
Your roots are showing
Is emotion overrated in music? Go back and listen to Blondie’s 1978 hit “Heart of Glass” before you answer.
Deborah “Debbie” Harry is rock ‘n’ roll’s quintessential Ice Queen, with a high voice full of freeze and a dismissive air you can dance to.
Not surprisingly, Blondie formed around her. Guitarist Chris Stein caught Harry — a peroxided ex-Playboy Bunny — performing as one-third of girl-group send-up act The Stillettos in NYC’s Boburn Tavern in ’73.
By ’75, the band’s core had jelled, with the addition of drummer Clem Burke and keyboardist Jimmy Destri. Two years later, there were hits in Britain; two more years, and chart success back at home.
Blondie was consistently a bigger deal in England, which makes great fodder for ethnocentric clichés.
A new British mate recently e-mailed me of his “terrible crush” on Debbie Harry as a kid.
“Me and every other guy in the world,” he wrote. “Those Garbo lips. Those high cheekbones, like Meryl Streep.”
Meryl Streep? (See ethnocentric note above.)
Anyway, the hits finally dried up, and Blondie disbanded post-tour after the tepid The Hunter album (’82). Harry was by then already mired in a quicksand solo career.
The band resurfaced in ’98, releasing the well-received No Exit, with its international hit “Maria.”
And this year brings us The Curse of Blondie, a mostly self-fulfilling prophecy: What once felt so groundbreaking now seems rooted in the past. And not in a good way.
Curse kicks off on the wrong foot, with the insipid rap-lite of “Shakedown.” And from there, the album trips up repeatedly.
Too much of this new Blondie effort sounds like the imitators to the throne have taken over the palace (imagine No Doubt minus the vapid ska pretensions).
Album production is self-consciously current, with canned house beats indistinguishable from, well, you name it. Guitar parts seem badly dated (remember Eddie Van Halen playing for Michael Jackson? You will). And throughout, the sonic thickness de-shimmers Harry’s frosty come-hither-and-I’ll-smack-you-ness.
There are still great pop moments, hinging largely on the strength of That Voice. “Background Melody (The Only One)” pits Harry’s glacial pipes against faux strings, to crystalline effect. “Golden Rod” practically soars, pulling most of its punch, surprisingly, from the warmth of Her Chilliness’ singing.
And the spry “End to End” makes you feel “The Tide Is High” (’80) all over again. (Expand that into a sexual metaphor as you see fit.)
Yet periodic tasty touches do not sublimity make.
But so the hell what? The Giorgio Moroder-helmed “Call Me” (’80) remains some of the most delectable pure pop ever produced. And as for “One Way or Another” (’78) — ooh! Pure rap-less “Rapture” (’81).
So much so that gosh, “I Touch Myself.” (Oh, shut up. You do it, too.)
Except that that last song is actually by The Divinyls, from ’91, almost a decade post pre-reunion Blondie. It’s an easy mistake to make.
So what does it say when Debbie’s cool, cool influence can get you hot and bothered when she’s not actually even around?
A tuneful racket
What’s the worst thing you can do to a guitar? In Sonic Youth’s case, you can play it.
The flipside, of course, is that, as concerns these persistent purveyors of cacophonous cool, that’s often the best thing you can do to it, too.
The Youth arrived with multiple cheap axes in intentionally screwy tunings, a disdain for song structures and layer upon layer of distortion.
Noise. Loosely woven tapestries of it, tightly controlled. Harsh, cleanly produced sonics couching subversively shiny harangues of disaffection and dark sexual frankness (the latter often sung — largely off-key — by bassist Kim Gordon, long before the potty-mouth days of PJ Harvey and Liz Phair.)
It’s a sound that never-aging SY guitarist and vocalist Thurston Moore once dubbed “expressive f**ked up modernism.”
Because Sonic Youth are the true kids of the Velvets’ pop-veneered chaos, the keepers of the aural goo that later gave us, well, Goo (1990).
The Youth date to ’81, with the core lineup — Moore and Gordon (spouses since ’94), Lee Ranaldo (guitar, vocals) and Steve Shelley (drums — together since ’85. (“Omnimusician” Jim O’Rourke, a longstanding SY collaborator, joined in 2002.)
The group’s first big national splash came with the independent-label Bad Moon Rising (’85), a template of chugging riffs and distortion like a furious swarm of flies. But it was Daydream Nation (’88), their last “official” SY release on an indie, that cemented their influence. Marked by its consistency of drone, and tone, it’s a wall of dark chaos pierced intermittently by sunlight.
“I still think Daydream Nation is a monument to something,” an old buddy wrote me in a recent e-mail.”
Spot on, amigo: Sonic Youth = unsettling ambiguity.
But unlike Blondie, SY never went away, sometimes waning, but mostly waxing, through the years. And staying relevant by barely changing.
There have been the “commercial” forays (Kim Gordon a pop singer? Yeah, right) and stabs at slicker production. However, this year’s Sonic Nurse is yet another grand slice of the same discordant experimentalism that many of us listened to in college and pretended we liked more than most of us actually did, even as we secretly danced in baggy pajamas to MC Hammer.
Thus SY remain one of the few major-label bands to both manage respectable chart position and maintain a level of obscurity.
And maybe it’s as simple as this: Sonic Youth began as a bunch of geeks who, even at their glossiest (Goo), were still just a bunch of geeks.
Ask yourself: When did Elvis Costello start to suck? Answer: When he began kissing up to a knighted ex-Beatle. He only stopped sucking for a time when he re-channeled that inner geek, the bespectacled dork who gave David Lee Roth one more chance to show his dumb ass in public.
So bully for the Youth of today, nerdo-hip as ever. And so much so that when some online moron (or trickster) misidentifies “Pass the Dutchie” — the ’82 kiddie-reggae smash by Musical Youth — as something by Thurston and Kim and Co., it’s damn funny.
Call that a little expressive, f**ked-up post-modernism.