Sonic Life: A Memoir
“The reader will get an education in the formative years of a rock band, the grotty clubs, the vans, the marginal pay.”
Thurston Moore and his wife, Kim Gordon, were half of Sonic Youth until Moore took up with book editor Eva Prinz and left both the band and his marriage. That part got a lot of attention in Gordon’s memoir, Girl in a Band (2015), but very little in Moore’s book. He says the “extreme and difficult decision” to leave his partner and bandmate of almost 30 years, and the mother of his daughter, was made under circumstances that are “intensely personal, and I would never capitalize on them publicly, here or anywhere.”
Actually, Gordon isn’t all that vivid a presence in the book. Perhaps Moore should have called it “a musical memoir,” because he tends to avoid focusing on his feelings or his personal life and instead writes like a rock fan about every band he ever heard live or liked on disc. It’s interesting, but it would be more so if Moore offered a nuanced assessment of the groups he heard. He seems to like just about everything, the louder the better.
What hooked Moore early, growing up in suburban Bethel, Connecticut, was noise. He dutifully went to see Yes and Peter Frampton, but what is now known as “classic rock” was not going to punch his ticket. In 1963, at five years old, he got hooked by The Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie,” the most garage of any pop hit single, and his taste derived directly from that. Patti Smith at the Westport Country Playhouse in 1976 was seminal. He went for punk and proto-punk: the Ramones, the Stooges, New York Dolls, MC5. Velvet Underground’s 17-minute “Sister Ray” must have been a template for Sonic Youth.
Moore, who went to college for about five minutes, writes well about a Connecticut kid making his first forays into the big city, hearing bands at places like CBGBs before scurrying back home in the family’s ’68 Volkswagen Beetle. He was the music obsessive calling radio station WDRC in Hartford and asking them to play Nico’s “The End” (score) and Chunky, Novi and Ernie (nix) because John Cale produced it. The music was in New York, and Moore “needed to get there.” And eventually he did, to a third-floor walkup on 13th Street between Avenue A and B—dangerous at the time. He worked odd jobs and was frequently penniless.
It takes ages for Moore to graduate from going to shows to actually getting up on stage himself. He rarely missed seeing his heroes: Blondie, Television, Patti, Crass, the Dead Boys, the Damned, and many more. Noise avatar Glenn Branca, who’d later hire Moore for tours, was an important influence on Sonic Youth’s sound. Music mattered. The depths of despair for Moore in this period was missing John Lydon’s Public Image LTD in a secret New York show.
Finally, there are tentative forays with Moore’s first band, the Coachmen. He fit in, because all the members were really tall, but the brief flame flickered out. Rocker Viv Albertine, who wrote a book called Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, penned a blurb for Sonic Life, but fails to note that Moore leaves out most of the Girls Girls Girls part. He’s discreet, and not just about romance. He almost totally skips the drugs, if any, too. It makes a sharp contrast—not entirely unwelcome—with memoirs like Mark Lanegan’s Sing Backwards and Weep (2021), which is pretty much only about drugs.
Sonic Life is a generous book. If you met Thurston Moore, and you were at least marginally known, it’s mentioned here. His recall is impressive. The reader will get an education in the formative years of a rock band, the grotty clubs, the vans, the marginal pay. And the difficult music, which sometimes resulted in flying objects. Moore seems to revel in assaulting audiences with waves of noise. He doesn’t appear to mind if everyone is streaming for the exits.
When Sonic Youth gets its “big break” (they probably didn’t see it that way) on a major label the band blew any chance of hitting the mainstream (as their pals in Nirvana did) by recording some of their most challenging music. They made a 1992 appearance on the Letterman show, but with three minutes of falling-on-the-ground, avant-garde noise that won them few fans. “You all right?” a concerned Letterman asked. The band was trying to prove something, but it’s unclear what.
By all means read this book. The quibbles aren’t all that major, but they are there. Jazz gets lip service only, but at the same time Sonic Youth was playing the New York rock clubs in the 1970s experimental jazz musicians were opening loft clubs practically next door. And many of them were exploring outré noise, too. If he was out every night, couldn’t he have checked out the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers, and Rashied Ali?
Also a bit disappointing was Moore’s treatment of his excellent solo album, Trees Outside the Academy. He notes that it was recorded in guitarist J Mascis’ Massachusetts house, formerly occupied by actress Uma Thurman (Moore loves to drop names), but not that the album is a fairly sharp departure—a conventional, and lovely, singer-songwriter record. Like the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth fellow travelers Yo La Tengo, Moore always went from soft to loud, but surely the album deserved to be put in some useful context by its author.
Sonic Life upholds its title. This is 500 pages of immersion in the life of a noise-based art rock band, nearly a day-by-day account. So many people, places and events are mentioned that an index would have helped. If the albums and tours start to blur a bit, it’s not because Moore doesn’t write well—he very much does, and without a ghostwriter. The issue is more the author’s even-handed and objective approach—doesn’t he think any band, well, sucks?—and his operation within a fairly narrow band of noiseniks. He talks about the studios where the music was recorded, but not much about what’s in the grooves. More analysis and perhaps a tincture of introspection would help.