Mstation Book Reviews
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Tue, 28 Oct 2008

Sonic Youth

David Browne, Goodbye 20th Century: a biography of Sonic Youth, Da Capo Press

Sonic Youth have inspired great devotion along with great confusion. Originally the babies of the NYC art crowd and a sort of outgrowth of the punk/hardcore scene, they asked considerable questions about just what a song was and how it might be delivered. Their answers included many song-like things along with a fair sampling of pieces that were closer to noise music. And all with a certain sort of Downtown attitude.

The confusion was heightened by Sonic Youth's balancing act on the art/commerce high wire ... this was a part of their interest as well.

This book traces all the members of the band (Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Renaldo and Steve Shelley) and pretty much all the band's doings ... and along the way, the music scene of the time. And so we get a fairly good view of one of the more interesting periods in the history of music in New York. That it's a scene that has all but disappeared makes it more poignant. And in that line one might wonder that its eradication at the hands of big easy corporate money bidding property prices through the roof ... no wait! ... might we see a return to the old days now - days when a struggling artist could live in Manhattan? Days when a struggling venue might survive on small takings? Who knows?

From the post punk scene we move on through the Grunge and the alt-rock era in which Sonic Youth also played a part - quite a big part in fact as Thurston was an early booster of Nirvana and was instrumental in getting them on one of Geffen's labels.

Another aspect, and quite an endearing one, was their struggle to survive financially. For years they played for peanuts and lived off used tea bags practically. When their breakthrough came it was hardly to superstardom in commercial terms (which, as you can imagine displeased their label) but it was enough to let them live properly and buy houses and apartments and bring up kids. 'Greed is a bit of a waste of time' might be a good heading here for those artists who want to work on their own terms and lead a satisfying life.

So, yes, if you're a Sonic Youth fan then you should have this. If you're generally interested in music and particularly interested in the art/commerce fight then you'll find it interesting as well.

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