Albums of Our Lives: The Sonic Youth Mixtape a Friend Gave Me
In the early ’90s, when I was in high school, I listened to songs from bands that got played on the radio. I liked Metallica and Guns N’ Roses. I listened to less radio-friendly, but equally understandable, bands like pre-Nevermind Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney. I also listened to rap from the likes of Public Enemy and NWA. I didn’t know what to think about Sonic Youth.
The cover of Sonic Youth’s Goo was a drawing by Raymond Pettibon that looked something like a panel from a comic book: a man and an androgynous-looking woman, both with sunglasses, the woman holding a cigarette in her right hand. Above them, to the right, was a paragraph which told part of a story, not all of a story, about murder and running away. The back cover was another drawing, a woman using a cloth to clean a man’s face, and the words “Nothing … lipstick, a little blood.” I don’t remember why I bought the album in the first place: I had never heard their music. All I had to go on was a half-remembered mention in a music magazine and the strange, opaque cover.
The music was only slightly less opaque: “Tunic (Song For Karen)” told a story about a dead singer, with the implication I should know who this “Karen” was. “Scooter and Jinx” was nothing but a pair of guitars making noises, “Mildred Pierce” started out just fine, if a little boring, but ended with a man screaming “Mildred Pierce.” Even “Kool Thing,” the closest Sonic Youth has ever come to a hit single, isn’t exactly transparent. Why is the verbally fluent Chuck D reduced to catch phrases and non sequiturs? What are we to think of this kool thing? How is he going to liberate Kim Gordon from male, white, corporate oppression?
Whatever this music did, it did not rock—well, it did rock, sometimes, but it didn’t just rock, and when it rocked it didn’t rock for long. Sonic Youth is pop music, but it’s avant-garde pop. After they’ve rocked for a while, they make some noise ; after they’ve made some noise, they rock a little more.
In her novel Inferno Eileen Myles says Pettibon’s drawings seem to make references to other, unknown texts. That certainly works to describe his cover drawings for Goo. Because they seem like panels from a comic book, because they told part of a story but not all of a story, I assumed they came from a longer story. Myles’ description also describes Sonic Youth. Their lyrics are not self-contained; they are elliptical and ambiguous and ironic. Knowing who Mildred Pierce is does not help me understand why Thurston Moore would end the song screaming her name. What could an 18-year-old make of “I am airless, a vacuum child” or “Waking up, I see you dreaming of a drive-in?”
Pop music tends to be hot, or at least warm: hot with desire, or hot with rage, or warm with happiness, or warm with love, or hot with bluster or threats. As original and new as Nirvana was, Bleach still made perfect sense to that teenage me: it was loud, angry, and it rocked. Verse, chorus, verse.
Sonic Youth is cool, not hot, and I had nowhere to put it, no way to approach it. So I listened to Goo a few more times, but it sat neglected, more or less, until I went to college in 1991.
A year or two later, I met Christine, who was older than me and knew much more about music. Through her I heard about most of the music I liked in those years: the Gits, Beat Happening, Royal Trux, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Boss Hog, Unwound, the Pixies. She called the first tape she made for me “History of Grunge,” which served as an index to a ton of music I’d never heard. She inspired me to buy CDs or records of some of those bands—she even gave me a beat-up old record player she’d decorated with letter stickers to spell out “PUNK ROCK.” She made me tapes of others.
When I told Christine I owned Goo but didn’t listen to it much, she made me a Sonic Youth mixtape. There were a couple Ciccone Youth songs, from their silly and unnecessary album of covers by people like Madonna and Robert Palmer. There were tracks from Sister and Daydream Nation and Confusion is Sex. “Expressway to Yr Skull” (also called “Madonna, Sean and Me”) was probably on there, going from anthem to loud, swirling noise to quiet plodding noise over seven minutes. I’d later own an 18-minute live version of that one. I don’t remember all the songs, but I do remember the first two were “Intro” and “Brave Men Run (In My Family),” from Bad Moon Rising.
Those two songs made mundane tasks like walking to class, taking the bus to work or pre-night-of-drinking chain-smoking seem much more epically awesome and heroic. They build and build to a peak until the tension lifts, and, on the latter, there’s Kim Gordon singing, “Brave men run, in my family,” sounding more like a threat than a pun, until the tune eventually collapses into noise.
Gordon was around 30 when she recorded these, and I was about 20 when I first heard them. She sounded like someone who, like, knew things. Her voice was deep and mocking and, well, sexy: like she was enticing you and daring you and you knew that when you got there she was just going to make fun of you or convince you to do something fatally stupid.
There’s this Sonic Youth t-shirt with a cassette tape and crossbones on the front and a cassette labeled “Sonik Youth” on the back; its ribbon of music pulled out of the cassette in a tangled, irrecoverable mess. Sonic Youth couldn’t have known that this mix tape Christine made me was the best possible introduction to their music, but they could know that there were others: other mixtapes, other friends giving other mixtapes to other friends.