Eternal youth: (L-R) Steve Shelley, Thurston moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, and Jim O’Rourke
he kid says he’s got the guitars, and it’s all true. He wasn’t part of the heist, that black summer of ’99, when a truck packed to the ceiling with guitars, drums, amps, and pedals (all hot-rodded for sonic noise and pleasure) disappeared while the members of Sonic Youth slept in their hotel beds, preparing for a summer rock festival down in the O.C. That was the kid’s uncle or somebody, a guy serving time even now for unrelated sins. Anyway, that caper was six years ago, and this kid’s barely out of high school, away from home and living in his car, and he’s got the guitars!
So this kid walks right up to Lee Ranaldo, right here in Hollywood, and he says something like: “Remember me? We’re the guys that have some of your guitars.” Ranaldo remembers. He’s been trying to work something out with the kid for some time, but the kid’s skittish, not asking for money, but maybe worried about ending up in trouble. And there are others like him. Not long ago, Ranaldo found another of his beloved and scattered guitars on eBay and managed to reclaim it … for quadruple the original price.
A rendezvous is planned. Drummer Steve Shelley will meet with the kid and a friend the next morning with $500 cash. Ranaldo is not angry at all. He just wants his gear. “These kids had nothing to do with stealing it,” he says. “But they were, in their own sort of fucked-up way, trying their best to help us, even though it took them forever to finally do so.”
Sonic Youth is in L.A. to play Arthurfest, a homey underground rock festival on a hilltop in the middle of Hollywood, a weekend gathering of counterculture heavyweights and unknowns to close out the summer, sponsored by Arthur magazine (in which Sonics guitarist Thurston Moore co-authors a column). And tonight, the band will erupt onstage with the usual beauty and aggression, with waves of industrial melody and feedback, singing words of disaffected grace and confusion, high culture and low, of pop and Bohemia, as guitar heroes who sound nothing like Clapton or Page or Stevie Ray. No blues, ever.
The meaning of Sonic Youth is not easy to judge. Punk, noise, no wave, alt-rock, berserk-pop, genius, sell-out, pure poetry, avant-garbage, skronk, skunk, junk … it all applies, depending on your mood, and misses the mark every time. Even its great champion, that dino of rockcrits himself, one Robert Christgau of NYC, found the band laughable at first, and wrote as much for years. Sonic Youth was a joke or an irritant and a whole lotta pointless racket. And then something changed in his ears or in their delivery, and soon he was calling them “the world’s greatest rock & roll band.” Which may be true on some nights, even if the Rolling Stones have claimed that title for decades, long after it held any real meaning. Sonic Youth would never ask for such a thing.
Punk-rock is an equally dubious title, in a way. Moore, Ranaldo, and bassist-guitarist Kim Gordon spent their formative years witnessing the original punk movement of New York, and soon began playing themselves. Even Moore is a little sentimental about it. At the infamous CBGB dive-club, he saw Patti Smith and Television and the Ramones and Richard Hell and that whole wide swath of music that once owned the punk label. Back then, CBGB was like a little cottage in the middle of a Bowery wasteland of flophouse hotels. But when that first wave of punk ended, CBGB kept going. And now that the little club has lost its lease and will likely fail in its fight to remain at Bowery & Bleeker, Moore says with a wistful grin, “I wish I had the means to purchase it, because I would like to sort of curate and book it.” He laments that the club today is no longer what it was in the ’70s and ’80s. “It didn’t really progress from that. It just became the kind of clearing house of bands that wanted to play CBGB’s. I never thought it maintained that vision. It became something else.”
Moore is sipping a Red Stripe beer in the shade of Barnsdall Art Park, where tonight’s gig is set to begin in a few hours. Gordon and their daughter Coco are nearby, killing time with friends and other musicians. Guitarist Jim O’Rourke, who joined the band as its fifth member in 1999, is here too, but won’t be on the next SY album, set to begin recording next spring. He’s moving on.
Ranaldo pulls up a chair and says, “What people talk about now as punk is a caricature of a certain kind of nostalgia.”
But Sonic Youth still personifies the original underground imperative, not just for the band’s own work, but as a key part of the SST Records revolution of the 1980s, which supported Black Flag, the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, and others who would inspire the coming wave of indie rock. And it was there for everyone to see when Sonic Youth costarred with Nirvana in the road documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke. No one was in safety pins and spiky hair, but the unavoidable message was that this generation of unknown rockers was of the same intense lineage as the original punks, following no proven formula and still distrusting success, hitting the road like Beats with guitars and pedals. Punks not dead, after all.
And why would they stop now? They’ve been a part of underground music for a quarter-century. Sonic Youth’s flirtation with the crossover ’90s is mostly behind them, with no regrets, and yet they maintain a happy existence at the corporate Geffen label and continue to thrive. Despite modest corporate payoff, the label has even begun releasing elaborate new deluxe editions of their back catalog. Just this month came a reissue of Goo, which first delivered the SY manifesto to the commercial airwaves. But they were not grunge or anything else, less like Pearl Jam and more like Ornette Coleman or some other self-absorbed musical artiste, playing special nights at the Kennedy Center and hardly ever getting an invite to play a county fair.
“Nobody told Muddy Waters he was too old to play music,” Ranaldo says. And hardly anyone is saying as much to Sonic Youth, whose players are now deep into their 40s, and still commanding the stage like sonic revolutionaries.
The band’s live show later that night is proof enough. At center-stage stands Kim Gordon, wearing a very short dress of silky, flowery design, singing in that urgent, breathless, distant, desperate voice: “I love you! I love you! I love you!,” sounding both damaged and sincere, lungeing for some impossible connection. The image is both utterly feminine and absolutely dangerous behind the microphone.
By the third song, something called “Pattern Recognition,” the guitars are already beginning to fray, Moore’s especially. His expression has changed, moving from detachment into obsession as he flails wildly, holding his guitar upside down and hugging it. He empties a water bottle over himself and the front rows, then pulls someone he knows up from the crowd, and they wrestle to the floor, tangled in limbs and electrical cords. Just like at the song’s creation, a planned moment of wild improv built into the tune.
“The rehearsals are some of the best gigs, in a certain way,” Ranaldo says later with a laugh, “just trying stuff out. If it doesn’t get wild there, it’s not going to happen.”
A few weeks later, Ranaldo is on the phone. The meeting with the kid happened, and just days ago a couple of guitars arrived in the mail, beat-up and repainted and looking like hell. But Ranaldo’s glad to have them back.
Not that the great heist of ’99 ever threatened the band’s forward motion. Guitars can be replaced. A lifelong collaboration can’t. “At one point, we were young and poor, and there was no other reason to do anything but truth and beauty,” Ranaldo says. “And now we’ve got mortgages and kids and whatnot. For us, we still try to hold on to that. The reason we make music is to get at those same goals. Even for a band like us, we could have been a lot more successful at selling out, had that been at the front of our minds. We pretty much keep it as an unspoken, unwritten understanding that it wasn’t about fame and fortune for us. It sounds kind of corny, but that’s kind of held us together.”