Sonic Youth: 3 July 2009 – United Palace Theatre, New York

Sonic Youth

Once I finished marveling at the ornate carvings curling like golden ivy over every available surface in the inappropriately austere church in which Sonic Youth’s big New York comeback was to take place, I realized that I wasn’t sure where my tickets would place me. Row OO? “Zero-zero” sounded like it would be at the very front of the room, a thought that made me a) run to the bathroom to get toilet paper to stuff in my ears and b) all jittery. Sonic Youth have a reputation for being inconsiderately loud, but as it turned out, I was in “oh-oh,” a little farther back.

The volume wasn’t anywhere near what I had expected, but the production as a whole was still plenty chaotic. For one thing, Thurston Moore is about eleven feet tall and looked to be about nineteen, especially in the way he flopped and flailed about with the riffs, a stark contrast to singer/wife Kim Gordon’s stoicism. At one point he even knocked over part of the lighting rig. “You gotta strap that down,” he grumbled to the nearest roadie. Lee Ranaldo, likewise, later spazzed the cable right out of his guitar mid-strum, leaving us with live contact points buzzing against the floor, which I guess didn’t actually sound all that different after all. At other times — the hardest parts, presumably — they’d wield their pedal boards with the focus and precision of scientists in a chem lab; on one riff, Ranaldo’s right hand, curled over the fretboard divining for harmonics, found the exact same squeal four times in a row, and for as many bars his eyes didn’t even waver from his D string long enough for him to blink. For all he cared, we might as well have disappeared.

Classics like “Tom Violence” occasionally worked their way in, but for the most part the set list consisted of tunes from this year’s triumphant new album The Eternal, including the loping “Antenna” and “Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)”, the latter lamentably a much more respectful tribute than that one time when they went after the dean of rock writers by re-christening “Kill Yr. Idols” as “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fuckin’ Dick.” (Speaking of which: bring it on, guys.)

Everything was still messy, sloppy, and as always seemingly delighted with itself as a result, but to those of us listening from the outside, it barely made sense. But therein lies the genius: after an hour of barely coherent hoots and grunts, whether coming from amps or mouths, systematically repeated or not, even the shortest discernible phrase or the vaguest reflection of tangible melody could hook into you as though it were the new pop-chart hotness. Black, a cardinal symbolic color in all sorts of contexts — death, goth, ninja– isn’t a color at all, but the absence thereof; as it turns out, harmony can be presented similarly if you’re sufficiently twisted. It’s not hard to understand why these guys epitomized New York’s punk-rock intelligentsia in the early 80’s. The surprising part, also inarguable once you’ve seen them in action, is that they’re still on top thirty years later.

When Thurston picked up a stray guitar cable (not Ranaldo’s, so far as I could tell) and pretended he was arming a grenade, he was just counting us in: buzz-buzz-buzz from his thumb on the pin, and then he plugged his guitar back in. Just as we became more or less desensitized to all the kabooms, things started to wind down with “Death Valley ’69”, an early tune from which certain lyrics (“You’ve got sand in your eyes,” “I’ve got sand in my mouth,” etc) now seem somehow aesthetically prophetic. (Aside: I’d be remiss in my duties as a curator of all matters pop if I were to omit my shock at the realization that this song is just about 25 years old at this point.)

As the crowd howled around me afterwards, I felt like Rows NN and PP hit some kind of resonant frequency deal which set my whole seat a rattling. I don’t know, maybe I was imagining it; I might have still had the wads of toilet paper in. Gordon gingerly waved goodbye and bolted with an embarrassed look on her face, as though she was aware that what they had just done was outlandish by any conventional measure. Moore, on the other hand, took his guitar off and sent it crashing down onto the stage below — still plugged in, of course. One enthusiastic onlooker, no doubt a longtime fan thrilled by The Eternal, hollered out, trying to sum things up for us: “Sonic Youth is back!”

Ranaldo just answered with his guitar: SKRONK.

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