Strangely Imbalanced

Sonic Life: A Memoir, Thurston Moore (Faber, 26.10.23)

‘When I delivered my manuscript, I wrote too much. And I had so much downtime during the pandemic and I was really concerned about having enough content, so I just wrote everything. And then the editors were like, “It’s 10 times too long.” So all of last year was just editing it down, scissoring and shearing. I give histories of just about every single band that we ever intersected with, and try to talk about anything except for myself.’
     – Thurston Moore, in ‘Thurston Moore and Bush Tetras Look Back on the No Wave Scene’,    
         Interview magazine, August 11, 2023

As one of the co-founders/guitarists/vocalists in Sonic Youth (as well as many other bands/collaborations, alongside his work in writing and publishing), Thurston has dedicated himself to an influential range of independent and experimental practices since the late 1970s. Sonic Life is a hefty 470-page memoir which is neatly summed up in the quote above – it’s as much about Thurston’s engagement with other music as it is with his own, and with that central focus on music throughout the book, it shies away from deep personal or psychological reflections about himself, those close to him, and the music business. It’s a greatly enjoyable read, albeit one where I increasingly felt that there was more to be said about Thurston Moore, and indeed Sonic Youth.

My own connection with Sonic Youth started with a free NME 7” single, which included a blistering live version of ‘White Kross’, a song which would soon appear on their album Sister (1987). A few weeks later, I caught the band live in a Glasgow nightclub (supported by fIREHOSE, a formidable double-bill). By that point I was smitten – for me, their run of albums from EVOL (1986) to Dirty (1992) is astonishing, with lots of remarkable work since then in various contexts inside and outside of Sonic Youth.

The first decade of Sonic Youth’s existence coincided with many shifts in rock culture, and they were clearly a key part of many of those histories. However, apart from an awareness of Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo’s work in Glenn Branca’s massed electric guitar ensemble in the early 80s, I was unaware of the band’s or band members’ activities prior to 1985 – this book certainly provides much detail from that period.

With a heavy focus on the late 70s to end of the 80s, the book then moves at a faster clip through to the end of the band in 2011. There’s no question that what it offers from the 70s and 80s is musically rich and illuminating, but the relative lack of focus on the 90s and beyond, and with no focus on Thurston’s life and work after Sonic Youth, makes the book feel strangely imbalanced.

By page 100, it’s 1979, and Thurston’s deeply engaged with punk, post-punk and no wave in New York City, while starting to play in his first bands. By page 200, it’s 1981, and Sonic Youth are a trio, with Thurston, bassist Kim Gordon and guitarist Lee Renaldo. By page 300, it’s 1985, Bad Moon Rising is about to be released and drummer Steve Shelley’s about to join the band. By page 400, it’s 1992/3, and Sonic Youth are touring internationally ‘nearly nonstop’ for nine months. 70 pages later and the band (and book) ends in 2011.

That’s a painfully reductive summary of the book’s timeline, and many interesting stories and developments are woven throughout, but I hope it gives a sense of its structure. Thurston was present at so many gigs (not to mention performances, readings and galleries) in NYC from the late 70s onwards, with a national and international engagement with bands, fanzines, venues, record stores and labels a constant throughout the book – there’s a lot to tell. Full pages, if not short chapters, are devoted to key gigs he attended – Thurston may just have been an audience member, but he witnessed an astonishing number of important shows. A gruelling and unnerving Suicide gig is a standout story. Thurston may have been poor, and struggled to hold down a day job, but he was committed to being in NYC and becoming more and more immersed in the cultures which he was enthused about.

Key figures who appear multiple times in the book are Patti Smith (from attending concerts and readings in the 70s through to the 90s, when Thurston interviewed Patti for Bomb magazine and played acoustic guitar at some of Patti’s readings); Glenn Branca (a key artistic influence from his early bands, through to inviting Thurston to be in his larger guitar ensemble, then releasing Sonic Youth’s first records on his Neutral Records label); Lydia Lunch (as friend and artistic collaborator); the importance of the Blast First label in the 80s; plus friendships with Mike Watt, Nirvana, Michael Stipe, and Michael Gira.

Being part of an important and influential cultural scene was clearly crucial for Thurston and the band, and Sonic Youth’s continued commitment to experimentation shines throughout the book. Thurston’s succinct and incisive descriptions of music and its effects resonates repeatedly across the book.

The book does not aim to dwell on negativity or critique. While Blast First’s work is praised, the band’s US label at the same time, SST, are briefly described as being wanting in comparison – but what those issues were isn’t explored in any detail. The band’s shift from independent labels to DGC/Geffen in 1990 is clearly a key moment in the band’s narrative, and although it’s acknowledged in the book as a decision that the band and others laboured over, that label move is not explored ethically or financially in detail, and I didn’t come away with much of an understanding about what the bigger label allowed the band to do in terms of recording, distribution, marketing or touring – clearly, all of those things shifted in the 90s for Sonic Youth.

The break-up of Thurston and Kim Gordon’s marriage is also not expanded on beyond a brief summary of Thurston falling in love with someone else, and the resulting fallout; the book makes clear that it is not the place to go into more detail on that ‘intensely personal’ matter. In many ways, that’s in alignment with the book overall, given the reluctance to share much about Thurston’s inner life (there are brief mentions of his early shyness; some later sarcastic behaviour towards an old friend; and an acknowledgement of the band’s growing maturity with age), minimal information about Kim, even less of a sense of Lee and Steve, and nothing about Thurston’s life after Sonic Youth. The band’s interpersonal dynamic, which like a family could be occasionally fraught, comes up, but a sense of how that family’s line-up stayed stable (with two additional bassists along the way) for over 25 years is not illuminated.

While it might be said that the book didn’t set out to engage with label matters and the band members’ personalities, the imbalance in its timeline feels like its main shortcoming. Given the level of detail shared about the 70s/80s, sometimes charting developments on a monthly basis, a comparable engagement with the 90s/00s, when the band continued to deliver important recordings and performances, would have been welcome. The book is crammed with stories, but not all of the anecdotes necessarily merit inclusion – it’s great to hear about Iggy Pop joining Sonic Youth for an encore of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ in 1987, but a later page devoted to security stopping them watching an Iggy Pop festival performance from the side of the stage felt inconsequential.

This is a book bubbling over with incident, and the formation and work of one of the key rock bands of recent decades is a vital story. If you have an interest in Sonic Youth, it’s definitely worth reading, though with the caveats above.




CJ Mitchell




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