“We Were Not That Band”—But What Was Sonic Youth?

Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore's memoir may tell us about his life. But he doesn’t give us much insight into the band they were.

In spring 1996, in the first flush of my serious Sonic Youth fandom, I recall excitedly talking to a friend in Algebra II about “Schizophrenia,” the first song on Sonic Youth’s 1987 album Sister. A third classmate overheard me, giggled, and then asked a question logical to a mainstream music fan: “Why would anyone sing a song about schizophrenia?”

What I was unable to articulate in my answer is that schizophrenia is less the subject of the song than an opaque inspiration for it. The song begins with the speaker visiting his friend whose sister is mentally ill. Thurston Moore, guitarist, songwriter, and singer, inhabits a character who seems both drawn to the sister and scared of her: “Her light eyes are dancing / she is insane.” The sister, too, frames her relation to her disorder with surprising ambivalence—Moore’s speaker quotes her as saying “schizophrenia / is taking me home.”

The appeal of “Schizophrenia” is that it creates compelling structures and then jettisons them, ripping through moods that feel like they should last. They could stay in the part I always hum after listening to it—the near-pop of the first minute and a half—but something else beckons, builds, appears, and makes way for something else. I don’t know what schizophrenia feels like, but the music in “Schizophrenia” imagines an encounter with it engendering an experience without limits or guidelines. Sonic Youth did this over and over: a song starts one way, and then the whole thing falls apart, and then it falls apart again but differently.

To see just how much Sonic Youth mastered moving between order and disorder, watch them on a show called Michelob Presents Night Music. Appearing on the program in 1990, they played the relatively straightforward song “Silver Rocket” from their breakthrough album Daydream Nation (1988). On the show, “Silver Rocket” begins like it sounds on the album, lean and taut, the chorus a quick, two-line summary of the song’s style: “Silver rocket / burning a hole in your pocket.” They run through the three verses and choruses in just over 90 seconds, and then they erupt out of their physical formation and out of musical alignment. Moore plunges his guitar neck down in front of his amps and shakes it, as if to urge the feedback forward; Kim Gordon’s bass turns into a third, screechy guitar; Lee Reynaldo kneels, turns a switch, and starts to rip. The song’s lyrics, melody, and rhythm are long gone. It seems certain that we’re going to hear this weirdness and discordance until they put the guitars down and someone says, “Sonic Youth, everybody.” Two minutes into the jam, Reynaldo moves over to Moore, and for a second, bits of the “Silver Rocket” melody return. Then Moore falls down, and it feels like that hint of the melody might’ve been just an echo. At 4:01, all at once, without any clear signaling, they’re all back in the song, as if someone flipped a switch.

Not every Sonic Youth song or performance felt like this. Their signature song, “Teenage Riot,” is indie pop through and through; a much later tune, “Incinerate,” could almost fit on classic rock radio. But they were at their most characteristic when the sounds they produced and the energies they wielded felt uncontainable by any traditional structure.

The mainstream story of rock in the early 1990s was one of youthful ballast replacing decadence. Guns-N’-Roses went from the fierce aggression of Welcome to the Jungle to the glorious, bloated ballads of Use Your Illusion, complete with their supermodel wives and ex-wives and their expensive, artsy videos. Nirvana and Pearl Jam were flannel-clad upstarts, wielding anger and authenticity. Nationwide attention came for rock bands who didn’t care about selling out stadiums, and canned corporate crap (which Guns-N’-Roses, I assert, definitely was not) did.

In this landscape, Sonic Youth occupied a space with a number of other highly respected bands—Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney, the Screaming Trees, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Pavement—who could be roughly grouped with the multiplatinum grunge acts by sound but consistently veered in directions that the mainstream, it turned out, couldn’t admit. These bands had significant followings and would occasionally headline or coheadline the big festivals, but they remained committed to exploration, variety, rage, and weirdness. Sonic Youth signed with Geffen, a major label, in 1990, meaning they weren’t averse to the kind of exposure that Nirvana and Pearl Jam experienced. Talking about the politics surrounding major labels in his recently published memoir, Sonic Life, Moore complains that the idea of “selling out,” a derogatory term commonly lobbied at anyone who took corporate money, implied that bands who signed with these companies “were depicted as though they had no agency, stupidly falling into the traps that major labels had set for them. We were not that band.”

Sonic Life traces Moore’s growth from a guitar-obsessed teenager in suburban Connecticut to his current status as an underground rock icon who felt confident that corporate meddling wouldn’t change his band’s identity. The book satisfies the fan’s desire to get to know guitar god Moore, whom we see grow from asking a barber to cut his hair like Iggy Pop to actually playing with Iggy Pop and from sneaking into Patti Smith concerts to playing with Patti Smith. As Sonic Youth enters their most successful period, the book catalogues the bands they toured with and got to know—a who’s who of 1980s and 1990s rock icons (in addition to the aforementioned Dinosaur Jr. and Mudhoney, they also played with Eddie Vedder, Michael Stipe, Courtney Love, and Nirvana)—as well as encounters with Neil Young and collaborations with Yoko Ono.

Moore’s memoir is also interesting for its takes on New York before and during the era of gentrification, which offer a more well-rounded picture of that time period than other recent accounts. Narrating in a genial tone that reflects his good-guy image, Moore also explains his growing awareness of the importance of feminism, especially after meeting his longtime spouse Kim Gordon. Sonic Life appeared over a decade after Moore’s affair with his current partner led to his breakup with Gordon and ended the band; Gordon’s own memoir, A Girl in the Band, paints Moore’s infidelity in an understandably negative light, and it’s hard to read his accounts of their relationship without calling hers to mind.

The Sonic Youth fan who buys this book is likely to be less interested in Moore’s cool celebrity experiences and much more interested in the albums, songs, and composition process that made the band the icons they are.

First and foremost, though, Sonic Life is a narrative of Moore’s experiences, of which he seems to have an encyclopedic memory. In choosing to emphasize his narrative, which moves at an appealingly brisk pace, Moore often sacrifices analysis. Reflections about the band’s cultural importance are largely absent, and he doesn’t give much space to the rise of alternative rock or its eventual, inevitable watering down.

More surprisingly, Sonic Life doesn’t provide much insight into the internal dynamics of the band or, beyond occasional quotes like the one above, a sense of how they understood themselves. Moore seems to know why fans are here: published in 2023, the book spends very little time on his life after Sonic Youth’s 2011 breakup. The memoir somewhat abruptly concludes with Moore deciding on their last album’s name (The Eternal), as if he wants to make sure that each album gets mentioned at least once.

But Moore doesn’t give much attention to the content or form of the albums, and these are the documents through which we got to know Sonic Youth, what we can revisit after reading and hope to consider anew. Yet the book goes on for about 250 pages before Sonic Youth’s first record comes out. Sister, arguably the band’s first truly great LP, emerges 70 pages later. Daydream Nation shows up on page 340. Readers who know the band’s discography well must at this point realize that they are three-quarters of the way through the book and one-quarter of the way through the band’s catalogue. Moore’s distribution of narrative attention seems confusing. Is the title really the most important—in fact the only—detail to share about The Eternal?

In a rare, somewhat lengthy glimpse at how Sonic Youth worked around the time of their 1992 album Dirty, Moore describes an essentially collaborative process with his bandmates, as he’d usually bring “chord structures to the group, not telling anyone explicitly what to play.” Rehearsals “felt like eight hands pushing paint around, teasing, daring, challenging, connecting, disconnecting.” Though at first he says that “guitar tunings would define our choices,” he then explains that “guitar modification was easy enough,” something anyone can do. Defining his sense of what distinguished Sonic Youth from other bands, Moore writes, “While our use of implements—power drills, drumstick jammed into and hammering onto guitars—could be seen as what made Sonic Youth ‘experimental,’ it was our structuring of songs that I always felt made us most unique … The most genuinely exploratory aspect of Sonic Youth, I felt, was in how a rock song could function outside traditional rock structure, even as it borrowed rock’s established language.”

It’s confounding, then, that Moore spends little attention on the song-structuring decisions that he felt defined the band’s uniqueness. In that same section, Moore says he “didn’t take any strict note” of fellow guitarist Ranaldo’s tunings because “the academics of it were overshadowed by the sheer state of sentient sound we conjured.” As a conceptual artist, someone focused on the formal possibilities of music rather than its thematic or political content, Moore may simply have resisted explaining these technical details in language ill-suited for replicating his decision making or describing sound itself.

But the absence feels jarring nonetheless. We do not get much about the band’s self-conception, the ways they constructed their songs and albums, and their thought process about their career trajectory and the many directions it took.

Like Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Sonic Life provides a rich picture of pregentrification Manhattan. This era, in the years during and after New York’s 1970s financial crisis, offered aspiring artists like Moore relatively cheap access to the city’s cultural resources (Max’s, CBGB) as well as opportunities to meet other artists. The disdain for contemporary Manhattan has been expressed endlessly in indie music: the Kills’ “What New York Used to Be,” Spoon’s “The New York Kiss,” and LCD Soundsystem’s “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” all essentially cover the same thematic territory, the dispiriting Disneyification of Manhattan life under the neoliberal Guiliani and Bloomberg regimes.

Unlike these somewhat ahistorical representations, Moore is careful to mention the problems of the early 1980s, including the size of the unhoused population, the preponderance of Black and brown people making minimum wage or less for terrible jobs, and the precarity facing many of the people living in his building and encountered on the street. Moore, a hip-hop aficionado, correctly points out that the music that most closely addresses the socioeconomic experience of this period came from New York native rappers and hip-hop artists, not migrant rock musicians like him. He calls the racially motivated killing of Michael Stewart by New York City police “an attack on the diversity that so many of us prized.”

Moore’s desire to produce a less-than-ideal yet still nostalgic picture of this era manifests in this sentiment about New York in the later 2000s: “Money would both save and destroy the city I loved.” He marks Manhattan’s change from a place economically hospitable to newcomers like him as a major loss—rents got so high that Sonic Youth couldn’t afford their Murray Street studio by the early 2000s—yet he also notes that “lower crime and murder rates were an unalloyed benefit to New Yorkers.” Moore is careful to note the whiteness of the rock scenes he participated in and to document his own growing awareness of male privilege and the misogyny baked into rock culture.

Moore’s attention to these questions has to be considered in light of the less-than-flattering depiction of him in Gordon’s book. She received the greater share of sympathy after the affair became public, especially since Moore was in the clichéd position of leaving his longtime spouse and the mother of his daughter for a younger woman.

Aware of this, Moore includes a fairly clear dig at Gordon for publicly discussing the dissolution of their marriage: “The circumstances that led me to a place where I would even consider such an extreme and difficult decision [leaving Gordon] … are intensely personal, and I would never capitalize on them publicly, here or anywhere.” Knowing Gordon had arguably done so and undermined Moore’s good-guy image clearly chafes him.

The sentence begs the questions, too, of what can be called “too personal” in a memoir. It seems a certain kind of caution prevents Moore from exploring the arguments he says he had with bandmates during recording in detail, beyond expressing regret for his part in them. That same cautiousness—or perhaps a lack of engagement with political questions within music—prevents him from exploring potentially rich areas for analysis within Sonic Youth’s own career.


The Last Rock Star?

By Ivan Kreilkamp

Consider, for instance, Public Enemy frontman Chuck D.’s short appearance on Goo’s “Kool Thing” (1990). At the time, the pairing of a highly political hip-hop artist with white indie rock heroes looked like clear cross-racial, cross-genre openness and hybridity. Looking back, Chuck D.’s five or six lines in the song in a back-and-forth with Gordon can seem a little tokenizing. Instead, we learn that Sonic Youth was recording at the same downtown Manhattan studio as Public Enemy, and they simply asked “Chuck to see if he would improvise over Kim’s vocals,” with “his voice like melted butter in the groove of the track.” What the move meant culturally or politically to the band in 1990 and whether that meaning has changed, however, are not part of the anecdote.

Still, it is undeniably fun to hear about J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., Gordon, and Moore walking up Washington Avenue in Hoboken to a tiny club called Maxwell’s to hear a band from Seattle everyone was talking about in 1988, which of course turns out to be Nirvana. These sorts of voyeuristic moments may be what Moore’s anticipated audience wants: intimate access to a beloved figure and glimpses into the life of a great musical success story. The stories of Moore backstage with other rock stars, doing damage to hotels, and playing while his thumb bled at least twice—these are the spaces Moore gets to access and activities he gets to enjoy that most of his fans do not.

In anticipating this kind of reader, however, it feels like Moore made a miscalculation. The Sonic Youth fan who buys this book is likely to be less interested in Moore’s cool celebrity experiences and much more interested in the albums, songs, and composition process that made the band the icons they are. Moore tells us that Gordon’s brother was schizophrenic and that knowing him led to the song, but he doesn’t explore why the song makes schizophrenia into an object of fascination and fear.

Returning to the albums after reading, I have not found myself thinking of any one of them differently. If the point of Sonic Life is for Moore to tell us about his life, it succeeds. But while Moore is clear about what kind of band Sonic Youth was not, he doesn’t give us much insight into the band they were. icon

Featured image: Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth live at Accelerator, Stockholm, Sweden, July, 7th, 2005. Anders Jensen-Urstad. / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)