at Avery Fisher Hall,
Lincoln Center - November 21, 1997
photo courtesy of Jay's
Sonic Youth page .
by Deklin Green
Sonic Youth is a band with whom I have a love/hate relationship. They
are a band who, within the same song can display both art school pretentiousness
as well as brilliance. They have released truly great rock and roll records (all
their releases) but for some reason always feel the need to constantly reinvent themselves
in some avant garde way, (Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore sharing stages and billing
with free form jazz artists and Kim Gordon flirtations with Japanese noise bands).
When I first heard that
Sonic Youth were playing Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in a performance called
"Guitar Futurism," I cringed. I mean who did this band think they were?
I imagined Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley thinking that
this would be their coming out party, a sort of debutante ball for twentieth century
composers; their chance to join the ranks of the Steven Reichs and Philip Glasses
of the world. I envisioned the audience at this show would be a bunch of geeky college
boys straight out of their philosophy and cultural studies classes staring at the
lanky poster child for the college rock intelligentsia, the geek gone cool - Thurston
Moore. I saw hordes of "womyn" paint barely dry on their homemade dresses.
I assumed that Sonic Youth wouldn't be playing the songs on their records which make
them stand out as one of the greatest rock bands of the last 15 years, but instead
droning out some noise in the name of anti-rock. The absurdity of it all made this
an event I did not want to miss.
I arrived at Avery Fisher
Hall in time to see the second half of Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip's instrumental
set. Within seconds my fears about this show were coming true. What I saw on stage
were two older men sitting on stools, guitars plugged into a bunch of digital delay
and echo pedals, noodling out atmospheric "sounds." The audience was polite,
some even enthusiastic, toward what the guys behind me called "postmodern pop."
Whenever there was a break in the sound we all clapped. I was disgusted-Tom Verlaine,
a man who was part of Television, one of the most original, exciting, and interesting
bands to ever play rock and roll (rock and roll only because we don't know where
else to place them), playing this. Listen to Marquee Moon and try to figure out where
Television came up with their sound, who were they influenced by, try to figure out
how Verlaine and Richard Lloyd (the other guitarist in Television) came up with their
guitar parts-each completely different from the other yet fitting together and complementing
each other perfectly. Tom Verlaine: from the brilliance of Television to sounding
like an eighteen year old kid who has just discovered digital delay pedals, marijuana,
and Dark Side of the Moon. I went to lobby to sip some red wine and discuss film.
At Avery Fisher Hall I was able to hear, for
the first time, the Sonic Youth that the band had always heard in their own heads;
the Sonic Youth that Thurston Moore wishes everyone could hear, as opposed to when
they play a some shitty concert hall and parts turn into mere noise.
I read the program for "Guitar Futurism." Anybody who wants a good laugh
should get a copy of this program and read what a mister Byron Coley has to say about
Sonic Youth. I have never read a more pretentious, hyperbolic, string of platitudes
in my life. Sentences such as "Sonic Youth's four members combined hepster knowledge
culled from four separate corners of the bohemian globe." ...and,"While
most bands have back catalogs that wither into nothingness, like rabbit turds in
a forgotten corner of the nursery, Sonic Youth's previous works combine with their
current ones to expose new aspects of a Euclidean whole."
What in the world is
this guy talking about? I took a deep breath and prepared myself for one of the most
absurd and disappointing performances I had ever seen. The lights went down, the
band took the stage, and then the music started. What followed was pure..brilliance.
I realized that I was
completely wrong about how I had envisioned what this show at Lincoln Center would
be like. The band can't be blamed for their fans, the guy who writes their blurb
in the program, or the opening band's inadequacies. The only thing that Sonic Youth
were wholly responsible for was their own performance and they lived up to this responsibility
fully. They were everything that makes my three favorite Sonic Youth albums (Daydream
Nation, Sister, and Evol) not just great experimental rock records, but great rock
and roll records. It was pop music turned inside out, 4/4 drum beats played in reverse;
guitar playing that realized it is not about how many notes you can play in a certain
amount of time, but that it's about playing the right notes at the right times; that
it is about tone and not about volume. They played new songs I have never heard before
(some were off the recent SY1 and SY2 E.P.'s) and each song was interesting and was
performed well. The band keep my attention the entire time that they were on the
stage. I wish I could explain just how intense it was to hear a rock band play in
a classical music auditorium. Every note could be heard. For the first time in my
life I could hear the tones of the toms, I could hear how Steve Shelley had his drums
tuned...the drums were not only the back beat of the group, but they became an instrument
of the band carrying on their own melody line just as the guitars were. At Avery
Fisher Hall I was able to hear, for the first time, the Sonic Youth that the band
had always heard in their own heads; the Sonic Youth that Thurston Moore wishes everyone
could hear, as opposed to when they play a some shitty concert hall and parts turn
into mere noise.
Sure there was the Allen
Ginsberg dedication, as well as a pretty poor scat singing attempt by Kim Gordon,
but when the band shut up and played they were one of the best bands I have ever
seen, and one of the best bands every single person in that concert hall had ever
seen. People were starting to get up out of their seats and were walking up the aisles
to the front of the stage. I thought that maybe the concert would end with everyone
out of their seats, Lincoln Center security fighting to get everything under control
- a perfect end to this Sonic Youth show. By the last two songs about a quarter of
the people were up and in front of the stage. I was thinking that it was going to
happen, that the entire audience was going to get up and rush the stage, bridge the
gap between rock and classical, and bring some danger back into rock and roll.
The last note died out,
and everyone started to file out of Avery fisher Hall. There was no stage rush, no
riot, there would be no headlines in tomorrow's news about the "crazed youth
at the Sonic Youth show." On my way out of Lincoln Center I thought again about
how wrong my expectations of this show had been, I thought about how if anyone hadn't
delivered at this show it wasn't Sonic Youth, it was their fans.
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