November 1st, 2011 | Published in Feeding My 160
Most of the coverage of the recently announced split of Gen X power couple Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore concerned itself with the implications for their band, Sonic Youth. This is, I think, an example of music journalists trying to take the high road. I’ve no doubt that what most of them are really wondering is why Kim and Thurston are breaking up. But to come out and speculate would turn the story into something fit for Celebitchy.com or People Magazine, on par with Kim Kardasian and Kris whatshisname. It’s much more dignified to ponder the future of a pioneering noise-rock band than to imagine a tawdry scenario like Kim catching Thurston in bed with the cleaning lady.
One non-musical aspect of the story that people are commenting on is the unfortunate implication for the institution of Gen X marriage, of which Kim and Thurston seemed the archetype. Speaking personally, the announcement did cause me some vague anxiety. My wife and I celebrated our tenth year anniversary last year. Having reached this milestone unscathed, I’ve been complacently imagining that our marriage will just continue in the same amiable way until one of us drops dead. Kim and Thurston’s announcement is a disconcerting reminder that nothing is guaranteed. If this ultra-cool pair can’t make it work after nearly three decades, what relationship horrors await the rest of us in our middle age?
The future of Sonic Youth seems to me to be the least interesting aspect of this whole story. Unless the break-up brings a new element of danger into the music, I won’t really care if the band calls it quits. I like Sonic Youth, but their output has been hit or miss for nearly twenty years. After the nearly perfect late ’80s trilogy of EVOL, Sister and Daydream Nation, the band slowly lost its focus, tempering the experimental fury of those early years with a move towards accessibility that never quite seemed to gel. The first two major label albums–Goo and Dirty–were enjoyable, but tried a little too hard to match the muscular sound of bands like Nirvana or Soundgarden. Sonic Youth can certainly rock out, but their strong suit has always been their ability to create intricate oceans of sound through non-traditional tunings and the most creative use of feedback since Jimi Hendrix. But even on early noise epics like EVOL‘s “Expressway to Yr. Skull” that feedback was often quiet, no more than a light tapping on the side of the guitar.
After 1994′s Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star, I got off the Sonic Youth train, and only paid attention to a few tracks on subsequent albums, like “The Diamond Sea” from Washing Machine. My biggest problem with the band, I have reluctantly come to realize, is Kim Gordon. With a few notable exceptions (“Eliminator Jr.” from Daydream Nation for example), I’ve found that my least favourite Sonic Youth songs are the ones she wrote and sings on. Murray Street, from 2002, would be a perfect album but for the last two tracks, both of which feature Kim’s monotone sing-speak and both of which grate.
This puts me in a minor moral quandary. Kim is clearly the coolest member of Sonic Youth–a pioneering figure in alternative rock, and a brilliant example of how a woman can find an enduring place in pop culture without turning herself into a cartoon. So am I a dick for hoping she goes away and leaves the boys to make music without her? Her departure wouldn’t solve all the band’s problems by any means, but it might help.
Someone once told me that no matter how much you try to be even-handed, when a couple breaks up you will inevitably pick sides. Kim and Thurston have always conducted the public aspect of their relationship with grace, and I hope they continue to do so. But if things get ugly, I guess I know whose team I’ll be on.
Expressway To Yr. Skull (aka “Madonna, Sean and Me”) – from “1991: The Year Punk Broke,” just re-released on DVD.
Rain On Tin, one of the standout tracks from Murray Street.
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