Dignified and Old

Photo by James BunoanLive Concert Reviews
Dignified and Old
Sonic Youth
The Glass House, Pomona
Sunday, July 19

For a band that managed to supplant the power chord with the effects pedal (at least as far as every high school band from about 1989 to Nirvana cared to take it) Sonic Youth live is as American guitar rock & roll as you ever get to see—so much better than Cheap Trick! Cute it up, and you could sell it at the county fair: Thurston windmilling stage-left like a teenage Pete Townshend, light show sliding side-to-side like Floyd 2000 at the Imax, even some crowd-surfer kid flopping onstage about three songs in—yeah, in the 909, I Love the 90s is all they talk about on the school bus Monday mornings—and why would that be a bad thing, if a guy could rock out a little?

The best part: Thurston Moore picking out a tiny, tinny blues progression somewhere between "Bull In the Heather" and "Kool Thing," not quite John Cage blowing into "Louie Louie" (well, "Kool Thing," maybe a little . . .), but to hear the band turn that fossil back into a dinosaur for a just a second? That's some alchemy right there: you forget all these spooky crackpot mad-scientist types started with the same baby-basic chemical components we all did. And to get to watch somebody connect what looks like the easiest thing in the world—Kim, Thurston, Lee and new guy Jim just hacking away at one note each, come onnnnn, my kid could do that if I could afford him a guitar like that!—back through a maze of technique and happy accident and careful error, back to something that isn't the easiest thing in the world but which is something you could teach anybody to do? That makes you remember some things get to be old because nothing has ever worked better.

You could still make a thesis out of all the trippy psychobabble Sonic Youth squeeze through their guitars—you could use the word "soundscape"; you could listen on headphones and think about the planetarium—but maybe that's all just a scenic route back to the same A-B-C-D structure the Beach Boys borrowed from the Four Freshman, the same car parts Lou Reed used to have to torch together in the Pickwick song factory, the same 1-4-5 that was already creaky when Jesse Stone got to it and said, hey, this fits really well over "Sorghum Switch." The critics are starting to get surly that Sonic Youth aren't quite as Youthful as the advertising could suggest—whatever, Black Flag weren't black, either—and they're floating this idea that somewhere there's a mandatory yearly standard of innovation the band's got to hit by virtue of, you know, oldness. But like a wise guy said: the Beach Boys washed up at 27, the Velvet Underground collapsed at 28, and Kurt Cobain was dead on the ground at 27, too, but Sonic Youth is uninterrupted and unmistakably alive at 23 as a band, never mind the ages of everybody in it, and maybe it's not because they're so fearlessly (or just obviously) experimental, but that they can now and then and most of the time write a song so effective and fundamental that it doesn't suffer for a second with two tons of spacey foot-pedal superstructure sagging on top of it.

In fact, we got proof of it, double-documented, when 50 cell-phone periscopes went clicky-click: that crowd-surfer kid, flopping about like a flounder out of water onstage? He swivels toward Kim with obvious kissyface intentions; Thurston snaps up behind him—an instantaneous nature-channel reaction—and cranks him around to face the people, Fender Mustang guitar squished between them. He peels up the kid's shirt and rubs orbits around the kid's nipples. The kid plays along with a little Justin Timberlake self-tummy-massage, though he looks a tiny bit scared, and you would be, too, because Thurston Moore really is, like, 47, plus he's very tall and pretty famous, all of which is amplified by a factor of thousands when it's rubbing your baby-boy boobies and breathing on the back of your ear, and then Thurston—after a moment longer than anyone thought he'd keep this up—tips him back over the monitors. And the song sounded exactly like it was supposed to sound the whole time. A song that can sail through hijinks like that is canon like "Louie Louie"; a band that can write that song is indestructible, a band untouchable enough they don't even care if you experiment on them. Sonic Youth is on glacial time; compared to dinosaurs, they've barely even got to be alive yet. And besides, people should lighten up: the fork in the road doesn't say, INNOVATE OR DIE; it just says, MILES DAVIS OR ROLLING STONES. It's easy to tell which way to go. (Chris Ziegler)

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