Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sonic Memento Mori

Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon are breaking up, and I am sad, sad, sad.

As all good people with minimally-acceptable taste agree, Sonic Youth made a great deal of the best, most original, most interesting rock music of the 80s. I first came on board with Confusion Is Sex---tracks like Freezer Burn and Protect Me From You suggested a world much darker and weirder than the Misfits albums that had previously been my black standard. The Misfits aren't actually the worst comparison point---just like Glenn Danzig was a great vocalist because he always implied vocal energy beyond what he was expending, Thurston Moore could somehow hit a single unchorded string in a way that implied a whole range of counter-harmonics of the sort that would drive a Lovecraft character mad.

But as with any major rock band, the image was as much part of the story as the music. The most punk thing about Sonic Youth was their contempt for the bad-boy mythos of rock ideology: a conviction that being a hard-drinkin' wild boy was exactly what the industry wanted, but being crazy artists with a stable marriage was the biggest bird you could flip to the system.

As The Clash quoted, the overclass always wants to turn a conflict between rulers and ruled into a generational conflict, because generational conflicts fade away. Like protégé Kurt Cobain, Thurston and Kim wanted to prove that you could be in a healthy grown-up relationship without turning into James fucking Taylor, that anger at the world didn't have to be directed at the person you're having sex with, that living well was the best revenge. Sonic Youth rarely sloganeered in their music, but their commitment to each other was inherently political, and the feminist subtext of their songwriting duties, where Thurston tended towards the introspective and Kim towards the aggressive, was unmistakable.

Mainstream rock ideology is enamored of doomed, self-destructive rebellion, because mainstream rock exists to take youthful energy and countercultural anger and render them harmless, and nothing is more harmless than a corpse. That sense of rock ideology as a co-opting was at the base of the punk rebellion, and Sonic Youth was always gleefully snarky about punk bands they saw as dragging out all the old Jim Morrison bullshit. Many a hippie has criticized punk for its nihilism, but the truth is that punk built more infrastructure for sustainable countercultural life---'zines, indie labels, even communes---than the 60s generation ever conceived of. The hippies, raised in wholesome, stable families, always imagined that if they just looked at the powerful with big enough doe eyes, they'd be given what they wanted. The punks, children of a divorced generation, knew that you would only get as much life as you could build yourself.

A marriage is the ultimate collaboration, and the ultimate counterculture---two people forming their own nation, and learning every day the most basic and most important lesson: How to treat another person as though they're as important as you are. Thurston and Kim's commitment to being collaborators, equals, and partners while making angular, smart, deadly, pissed-off noise, was an inspiration to everyone who thought mutual love could be the fulfillment of one's individualism, not the end. The end of this particular marriage doesn't mean that's wrong---what ended this marriage is ultimately none of my damn business, not least because all the fantasies I've spun based on their image has very little to do with these two actual people---but the failure of these two people to keep their partnership together makes me even sadder than all the dashed hopes that will soon be shuffling away from Zucotti Park.