Thurston Moore

Thurston Moore is a founding member of Sonic Youth, a band born in New York in 1981 that spent 30 years at the vanguard of alternative rock, influencing and inspiring such acts as Nirvana, Pavement, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, My Bloody Valentine, and Beck.

His recent release, Sonic Life, captures a career that includes a deep, detailed dive into his formative years living in New York City, a place that he eventually felt compelled to move to from suburban Connecticut.

Moore’s writing is a joy to read. I found myself looking forward to each successive chapter, as he recounts the details of every escapade, successful finds at the small local record store in New Haven, Connecticut, down to watching his favourite performers on stages around New York City… and beyond.

“With the fallout of hippie culture and the karmic sickness of war, New York City was subsumed in waste and neglect. Poets, punks, and painters were arriving now wearing black and calling for a revolution from boredom, exhausted identity, and thwarted ideals.”

I am continually in awe of his vivid recollection of time spent in his white ‘68 VW Bug (inherited from his Dad’s passing), driving from the safe haven of Connecticut to the “Big Bad Apple” – a city of grime, unsavoury characters, and noise – that birthed the underbelly of a golden age of punk, early new wave and experimental music.

Sonic Life cover

Of Moore’s regular visits to the iconic New York clubs of the era, he recalls The Clash’s first NYC concert:

“The Ramones had famously schooled the London scene upon their visit in 1976. The Clash returned the favour in 1979. After the shock of Sid’s (Vicious, of The Sex Pistols) passing, the Clash brought life hurtling back into the despairing punk community.”

And speaking of the Ramones, Moore’s take on Chinese Rocks was that of a “ballad fist of rock reductivism. In its distilled simplicity, if offered an instant antidote to the overblown progressive rock music that had dominated the 1970’s.”

Not only did Moore explore all facets of the underground art and music movements of the 70’s, but he circulated through the local clubs to experience an abundance and variety of musical acts (including Ut, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Glenn Braca) that would help set the musical style for his first band The Coachmen right through to Sonic Youth.

When one of his biggest idols, Patti Smith, played her last show at famed hot spot CBGB (and in NYC altogether), before heading to the Midwest to live a happy life with former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, Moore felt as though one of the anchors of the New York music world had been pulled.

Patti had been a “primary catalyst for so much of what punk had become: manic, messy, impassioned, inspired, enraged, enlightened, impetuous, impolite and intensely direct.”

Where the scene would drift off to next was anyone’s guess.

Having grown up with Sonic Youth, I was saddened by their break-up and Moore’s divorce from the ultimate queen in alt-rock, Kim Gordon. The infamous split with Gordon is included in a few spots.

“The circumstances that led me to a place where I would even consider such an extreme and difficult decision — to leave my marriage to Kim, my partner and bandmate of almost thirty years, the mother of our child, the adored aunt to my nieces and nephews — are intensely personal, and I would never capitalize on them publicly, here or anywhere else,” he writes towards the end of the book, as he recounts the band’s demise — and with it his marriage.

While Moore briefly approaches the subject of his relationship to Gordon, it’s mostly done in a loving way, recounting how they fell in love, their shotgun wedding, and life together in the same band.

Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon
[Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore]

“I got jealous sometimes about the way Kim gave attention to other male musicians, men whom it was obvious that she admired, either intellectually, emotionally, or both,” he writes. “She seemingly took in stride my platonic friendships with other women. Whatever feelings may have lingered within us, neither of us ever felt the need to confront the other in any accusing way.”

Infidelities aside, I wanted to get my hands on a book written by one of the coolest musicians in one of the coolest bands of the 80’s and 90’s.

Formed in 1981 (a pivotal year for this writer, as I wrapped up my high school career bound for an art degree in Southern California), Sonic Youth came onto the New York City scene in a big way, with Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, and Richard Edson (who joined after a series of early shows where each band member took turns at the drums until they met Edson).

Their band name morphed from the Arcadians in late 1980, when Moore combined MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith with reggae artists (such as Big Youth), many of whom featured “Youth” in their names. The two words grabbed hold and according to Moore, the title helped to “create a certain sound that was more of what they wanted to do”.

As I write this, I lament their 2011 demise with one remaining souvenir: A framed 2010 Sonic Youth concert poster from The Fillmore in San Francisco, my last chance to explore the wall of sound that the band so “sonically” pumped out through a three-decades-long discography.

If you’re keen on reading up on the history of Sonic Youth and SST Records (one of their earlier labels), then I highly recommend diving into Jim Ruland’s Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records.

Sonic Life, a 496-page hardback, is essential reading for alternative music fans and is published by Doubleday (CAD $48/USD $35); available at Doubleday Books as well as on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Hudson Booksellers, Powell’s, Target, Walmart and other retailers.

About the Author

Thurston Moore is currently involved in publishing and poetry and teaches at the Summer Writing Workshop at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and divides his time between the USA and England. Sonic Youth’s album Daydream Nation was chosen by the Library of Congress for historical preservation in the National Recording Registry in 2006.

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