Graded on a Curve:
Sonic Youth,
Bad Moon Rising

The most shameful moment of my sad existence was not the night I came out of a drunken blackout to discover I’d just challenged an NFL-sized brute from my hometown to a fight, then had to literally beg him to not beat me to a pulp. Nor was it the time I ruined Christmas for my then wife by drinking too much sake, accidentally dropping half a gram of perfectly good powdered cocaine into a wet sink, and knocking over the Christmas tree before unceremoniously passing out.

No–and I still blush with horror to think of it–it was the time I ran into Thurston Moore in a Philadelphia record store, and noticing he was flipping through the John Coltrane albums sidled up next to him like an awe-struck schoolgirl and PRETENDED to know nothing about John Coltrane… just so he would talk to me! And this despite the fact that–get this–I wasn’t even a fan!

That was a personal low indeed, and–just to make things worse–I have often taken out my shame over this deplorable personal episode on poor Thurston and his band. After all, it wasn’t his fault I decided to be such a craven suck-up. He was just trying to be helpful.

With that out of the way, please allow me to say this: I still don’t like Sonic Youth very much. Sure I loved 1988’s epic and sonically streamlined Daydream Nation, but it was a stylistic outlier for the band, so to illustrate my aversion let us turn to an earlier (but also much-lauded) LP, 1985’s Bad Moon Rising.

At first glance, Bad Moon Rising has a lot going for it. Groovy scarecrow with blazing pumpkin head on cover, check. Groovy song titles portending cartoon chaos, anomie, and doom, check. Positively groovy Charles Manson tribute featuring the one and only Lydia Lunch, check! I mean, how can you go wrong?

But here’s the rub. Only the aforementioned Lynch cut (“Death Valley ‘69”) gets a rise out of me, and as for the other seven, well, let’s just say I’d like ‘em better if Sonic Youth had stopped fooling around with their guitar tunings, picked up the tempos, and condescended to rock out for a change.

I mean, it’s not like I expect Sonic Youth to be a boogie band along the lines of the great Humble Pie, or a bunch of unrepentant chooglers like the fellow who thunk up the phrase “Bad Moon Rising” in the first place, but I’d sure like ‘em better if they understood that kicking out the jams only works if you do some kicking. On Bad Moon Rising the band digs itself a clamorous rut and stays in it, and unless you’re a pervert for odd guitar tunings and get off on vocalists who can’t sing, the album tends to… drag on.

Take “Society Is a Hole.” It consists of exactly one chord and sounds like a church service in Hell, except that makes it sound kinda interesting, which it isn’t. So make that a church service in Heaven for people who dig stasis, swoon at the sound of a singer (Moore) droning on in a tedious monotone, and take thorazine. Lots of thorazine. And the same can be said for the very annoying “Justice Is Might,” except Sonic Youth ups the tempo, if just the merest tad.

“I’m Insane” is the sound of a foundry gone berserk, and manic depressive if not manic impressive; it actually choogles a bit, but not enough to make you want to stand up, much less dance. As for the lyrics, they’re worth a cynical chortle, especially the lines that go, “Inside my head my dog’s a bear/She’s significant.” Which brings me to the wonderfully titled “Ghost Bitch,” which comes on like a freighter lost in a fog of avant-garde noise and proves that when it comes to bad singing Kim Gordon has her ex- beat vocal chords down.

LP opener “Intro” is pretty enough in its go nowhere way, but it’s a minute-rice trifle. Follow-up “Brave Men Run (In My Family)” opens on a hard-charging note and would be great if the sonic boys and girl in the band hadn’t seen fit to abandon velocity for atmospherics just as things are getting good. Thanks to all those prepared guitars Sonic Youth’s noodling may be more interesting than most other people’s noodling, but as Gertrude Stein once said, “Noodling is noodling is noodling.” Or something like that.

As for “I Love Her All the Time,” what can you say about a song when the thing you like best about it is the sampled snippet of Iggy Pop doing his thing? Which isn’t to say that’s the ONLY thing I like about it. The melody (yes melody!) is slow and beguiling, and Lee Renaldo makes some very cool fractured noises on guitar. And while Moore doesn’t sing exactly, he at least gives it the old NYC no-try try.

Which leaves us with the LP’s only undisputed winner, the bracing and malignant “Death Valley ‘69.” It tells the REAL story of the Summer of ‘69, and for once the band (with some help from the astringent Lydia Lunch) surrenders all of their highfalutin principles (along with their morbid Glenn Branca fixation) in favor of doing the ostrich (that’s an arcane VU reference for all you hipster kids). This is the berserker sound of Helter Skelter comin’ down, and I’ll bet you this one would have sounded swell while riding a stolen dune buggy up there in Charlie’s apocalyptic hideaway in Death Valley.

Of course it’s only showbiz–these Lower East Side kids’ only acquaintance with true horror probably involved running into some fat rats in CBGBs toilet, and after a while their casual flirtation with (and exploitation of) evil rings as false and cheap as, well, my own. But at least I try to be funny about it, because, well, real evil tends to frighten me into comedy.

I have the same reservations about Sonic Youth that I have about most bands that attempt to meld avant-garde concepts and rock and roll. There’s something unlikably rigid and even puritanical in their approach; they’re in thrall to their own awful scruples, and God forbid they should let such a trivial concern as enthralling their listeners stand in the way of their much vaunted aesthetic principles.

Had they stooped to comedy I might feel differently about both them and this album. But they seem to have taken their cue from such legendary NYC comedians as Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, and Rudy Giuliani, and a barrel of monkeys they ain’t.

Oh, and if you’re thinking about buying the CD for its four additional songs, don’t. “Satan Is Boring” is boring indeed, and if I were Satan I’d sue for defamation. “Halloween” is a drag and so much cheap horror movie bullshit. “Flower” is also a drag and almost enough to turn me into an anti-feminist. As for “Echo Canyon,” it’s all explosions, space winds, and broken glass, and a disgraceful waste of a valuable minute. Caveat emptor.

As for Thurston, should I run into him again I intend to tell him what I really think about him. Except I’ll probably behave just as disgracefully as I did the first time. Some people are born sycophants, and I’m ashamed to admit I’m one of them.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-

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