Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth
Edited by Peter Wild
There is a scene from Woody Allen's 1997 film Deconstructing Harry where an out-of-focus Robin Williams visits his doctor because he is... well... out-of-focus. Nothing metaphorical. his body is literally fuzzy. The doctor assures him there is nothing physically wrong with him but he makes his family nauseous and loses his work as a film actor and in classic Woody Allen (and Kurt Vonnegut) style, the idea is never resolved. It's not a long segment, only three or four minutes in the film, but it's one of those quirky scenes that sticks with you forever.
It's odd because when I think about Sonic Youth, I often think about that scene. Sonic Youth is the sort of band that remains eternally peripheral no matter how hard you try to focus on them. To me, they are the sort of band that fills the miniscule gaps in pop music without ever falling into a particular category. Born of the punk rock/new wave scene in New York City in the early eighties, they were never a punk or a new wave band, and although they are often called the grandfathers of the grunge/alternative scene on the 1990s, they don't fallen easily into either of those categories either. As you can see, just like the scene in Woody Allen's movie, Sonic Youth is unresolved.
I was an ambitious music listener when I was younger. I was listening to Johnny Cash in kindergarten, Motley Crue as a 7 year-old, Metallica at the age of 12 (before Enter Sandman, mind you) and I still bought my first Sonic Youth album far, far too early. I bought Daydream Nation in the wake of the Nirvana/Pearl Jam fiasco of 1992 expecting to get a variation on a theme. What I got was nothing like I had ever heard before. It was nihilistic and dangerous and painful and off-putting and all sorts of things a 14 year old isn't really ready to handle. Well, at least not me. It was like a Nora Jones fan picking up mid-career Tom Waits and expecting them to make that leap. I was simply baffled. Sonic Youth is opaque.
I put the album away for a couple of years until I inadvertently discovered Dirty in my first year of university. By then I was listening to a wider array of music and was susceptible to the more unsettling sounds of Thurston Moore's eccentric guitar work and Kim Gordon's flat, monotonously sexy vocals. Over the years I have grown to like Sonic Youth. Not love, mind you... but like. But it's a very strong like and Daydream Nation is now one of my favorite all-time albums. Sonic Youth is a mushroom on the brain.
When I saw them live in the late 90s, it was (and still is) one of the best shows I ever saw. The way they would tear a song apart like a predator slashing into its prey, both vicious and tender. Then, just when the song has been stripped down to nothing more than a wall of sheer feedback, distortion and noise to the point where you don't think you can stand it anymore, they slowly stitch the song back together like a musical Frankenstein. It was like waves of pleasure and pain, an oscillating cacophony of sound. It was, simply put, the first and only time I have experienced noise art. It was mesmerizing. Sonic Youth is idiosyncratic.
Try as I might, I could never really place them. Many bands defy categorization. That's the mark of any good band. But Sonic Youth defies the existence of categories or boundaries themselves. Just when you think you may have them all figured out, they come at you with something so outlandishly different you can only stand and marvel at the audacity of it all. Sonic Youth is not my favorite band. I doubt they are anyone's favorite band. It would be a difficult, moody relationship. High maintenance. Prone to vase-shattering arguments, long, painful silences and violent, knee-shuddering make-up sex. In a lot of ways, Sonic Youth is the musical equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome.
So I was excited to get my hands on Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth. A literary collection I hadn't even heard of until it fell in my hands. The premise of the collection is quite interesting. A series of writers were given a title of a Sonic Youth song and were asked to write a short story inspired by the song. Song titles include some of Sonic Youth's most accessible songs: Kissability, Kool Thing (Or How I Want to Fuck Patty Hearst) and Bull in the Heather as well as some of their more obscure titles. I hadn't heard of any of the writers in the book except for Katherine Dunn (which gives me the opportunity to plug her wonderfully weird novel Geek Love) but I will be seeking out a few in the near future.
Like Sonic Youth themselves, I wanted desperately to love this book unequivocally, but like my relationship with the band, this work is uneven and difficult. The good is really, really good. Catherine O'Flynn's interpretation of Snare, Girl is especially good in the way that she traps the reader along with a girl in the trunk of the car only to manipulate the reader through an emotional and psychological tug-of-war. Christopher Coake's variation of Unmade Bed captures the sharp reality of getting your ass kicked for absolutely no good reason and Brother James by Emily MaGuire is a smart, snarky and satirical look at the life of Jesus as seen through the eyes of his brother.... um... James. These stories alone are worth the price of admission.
But like a mediocre Sonic Youth offering, the bad is really, really bad. Call me a literary troglodyte if you must, but I simply hate avant-garde fiction. While I understand what is represents from an Ornette Colman/Free Jazz sort of perspective, the idea of reading 15 pages of sentences that don't really add up to a coherent story seems like a waste of time. Listening to My Friend Goo, the song, is a far cry from reading it as a stream of consciousness mess (Sorry Shelley Jackson). I've read a bit of avant-garde fiction over the years and it has literary value, I'm sure. It's just not my thing and I found that it really disjointed the collection. Made it uneven and quirky. But I guess I should have expected this sort of dichotomy given that Sonic Youth has played the same game with me for over 20 years.
Regardless, fans of Sonic Youth are going to find something in this collection to enjoy. I did. I droves. As for everyone else? I'm not sure. If you go into this collection blind (as in having never heard Sonic Youth) I would suggest a primer. You could download all the tracks used in the book. That would be the logical introduction given that you are about to read the book. But I'd do what I did. Go get Daydream Nation. Sit at home... alone... in the dark, glass of wine in hand and take it in. Do this repeatedly over a few weeks. If that album hasn't seeped into the pores of your very being, then give this book a pass. Sonic Youth is not for everybody.