Saturday, April 07, 2007

Sonic Youth's The Destroyed Room: Music to Live For

Coming out of Grindhouse (see below), I'm not the only one who's depressed. A friend and I talk after the film about how undermining an experience it was, both of us wondering if we're too sensitive, too porous; we both know that it's going to take us awhile to shake the bad feeling it's left us with. Just as a crappy film can sully us for hours, though, we both know very well that art has the capacity to lift us up, to strengthen us; neither of us would have gotten through our adolescence without music, to choose one example, and knowing this makes us somewhat intolerant of garbage. As young men, through art, we found an alternative to the rather bleak, unpromising realities around us, a way of expressing our emotions, knowing them, understanding them, a way of seeing the potential for human communication exalted, when so much around us seemed (and seems) to degrade it. I badly needed to balance out Grindhouse with an aesthetic experience that would redeem my day - and so, sucking in my pride at frequenting our corporate eyesore, HMV - with its giant banner of Tony Montana presiding over the DVD section, crappy corporate music being pumped out of the speakers, and suburban-shopping-mall vibe - I popped in and did what I do so often when I feel lost and without comfort: for better or for worse, I went shopping.

The first CD I bought today: The Who's Quadrophenia. This was my favourite album when I was fourteen or so, mostly for "The Real Me" and "Love Reign O'er Me." I listened to it, found myself in it, time and again, tried to work out the words to the songs (my copy came without a lyric sheet) and discussed their meaning with friends. In my grade 8 drama class, I blush to remember that I once did a "dramatic recitation" in a faux-British accent of the narrative included in my gatefold LP, which I'd memorized (something I don't think I've ever mentioned to anyone, so here it is: a blog-first revelation): "Now it's just the bare bones of what I am... a romantic, is it me for a moment?" It's hard to believe that I haven't owned it since I got rid of said gatefold, and a lot of my other records besides, sometime in my teens - around the time that I was discovering punk (which was slow to arrive in the suburbs - we're talking about 1982, here).
I approve of my past self's decisions, though. I'm proud to see that even then, I was starting to mistrust "classic rock." Part of it was surely just overexposure: most of what gets labelled thus has been chewed over and spat at us so often that it's become an offense. That wasn't entirely my reason for jumping ship, tho': I think I was beginning to notice even then that there's a whole lot of vital musical culture that the overpraising of such bloated "masterpieces" as Pink Floyd's The Wall, say, serves to obscure - I mean, find me someone who owns that recording in any format, and ALSO owns a CD by, or has even heard of, the Minutemen. Albums like the Who's Who's Next are so safely consumable that George W. Bush can drop references to songs on it ("Won't Get Fooled Again") in his bungled aphorisms; it might as well be "Born in the USA" (the original electric version, not Bruce's various acoustic attempts to rebrand that song). Classic rock is like a vast fortress of officially-approved, unthreatening popular culture that towers over all of us, asking us to serve it, rather than the other way around; it's only meaning increasingly seems to be that "baby boomers are cool," and it's significant that the best albums by most "classic rock" bands are the ones that get the least radio airplay (the Stones' Exile on Main St, for instance, or the still-unavailable-on-CD Time Fades Away by Neil Young and Crazy Horse). Not that I even want to get started on radio; I don't have to, because its conservative, corporate, payola-seeking nature has rendered it almost completely irrelevant.

Quadrophenia, though: for all its "we're making great art" pretension - the very concept of the "rock opera" is pretty fuckin' untenable, post-punk - there's stuff on this album that still has the power to chill and excite me and make a believer out of me all over again, jaded as I've become: the power of Daltrey's delivery of "Love Reign O'er Me," for instance, or the lyrics of "I'm One," or Entwistle's bass on "The Real Me," or the great guitar/bass interchanges on "The Punk Meets the Godfather." I know because briefly I owned the soundtrack to the movie when I was in Japan (1999-2002), with a bunch of the same songs, and liked hearing them again so much I was truly startled. I made a note that I would have to buy and revisit the recording proper again someday; maybe it's just that none of the songs on this album have become a mainstream anthem that it retains its power, I dunno - or maybe there really is something special about it, some vein of honest emotion that it taps into that can't be corrupted by a billion greedy radio stations pursuing all-precious advertising dollars. Seeing the recent Hollywood film Reign Over Me - which I must admit to having liked, but would never have mentioned here if it hadn't come up - I got to hear at least one of the songs on this album again (guess which), and decided that now was the moment, when I badly needed comfort, to actually buy the thing, to bring this album back into my life.

$35 for a double disc CD that has long since paid for itself and that I could download for free, or buy for $10 on eBay: no wonder the music industry is losing money. Fuck it, though: I need this album, now.

As an afterthought, I picked up Sonic Youth's The Destroyed Room, because I'd heard there was a 25 minute version of "The Diamond Sea" on it. One of my favourite songs of theirs, but I never much liked Washing Machine, the album it came on; I'm fussy about their work, and as important as some of their recordings have been to me (esp. Sister and Daydream Nation, and later A Thousand Leaves and Murray Street, if you're curious), I don't choose to own all of it. Bad Moon Rising has some great textures, but the songs aren't that memorable; Evol isn't cohesive enough, despite some great moments ("In the Kingdom #19" - fuck yeah!); most of Experimental Jet Set Trash and No Star seems weak, a scattered attempt to come to terms with a certain degree of success that only really finds itself on a couple of tracks ("Tokyo Eye" is killer); Goo borders on being terminally overplayed - the classic rock of the boomer's kids, and I only ever really want to revisit Lee's "Mote;" and Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped, their last two offerings, both kinda flat out bored me (sorry). The Destroyed Room, though - b-sides and rarities. Hm. Well, why not, since I'm shopping anyhow?

I go back to the cash with my Quadrophenia already bagged and add another purchase. Yes, I found everything I was looking for; no, I wouldn't like fries with that. I take it home and put it on expecting to be non-plussed, given what the liner notes describe as the improvised, jammy nature of the music thereon; I expect something a bit undercooked.

It's a great disc. From the start, the songs are both texturally rich and tuneful. There's little singing - Kim's voice pops up a couple of times, and Thurston's on "The Diamond Sea" - but these aren't "just jams;" the songs have a polished richness that is completely captivating, and never quite gets to sound like the "generic SY" stuff that tends to dominate the SYR discs (which mostly sound so much LIKE Sonic Youth, and accomplish so little else, that I almost never spin the ones I've kept). It shares with Quadrophenia the quality of being extremely ambitious, musically, but it does so less preciously, less self-consciously; the band aren't letting their pride, their ego, their own awe at what they're doing shine through in every song, they're just really getting off on it themselves... I lie back on the futon and listen - assisted with a brief pull on whatever's left in my pipe - and for the first time in I don't know how long, go through a CD from start to finish, doing nothing OTHER than listening to music. I am filled, elevated, moved, delighted; and am very pleased that the 25-minute long track that closes it is not a radical reworking of "The Diamond Sea," with 15 minutes of irrelevant noise jamming at the end, but a real 25 minute long version of that song!!! (Don't get me wrong - I love Sonic Youth's noise jams, but you never know, with them - it could have been five minutes of song and twenty minutes of feedback). Their website describes The Destroyed Room as a "a band-chosen collection of near-hidden Sonic Youth gems," and gems they are indeed - shiny, fascinating things that refract the light in all sorts of colours, throwing ghostly patterns on the wall that move and shimmer when you hold them up and turn them. I could stare into this album for hours -- it's easily my favourite release from SY since the too-short, but also rich, NY City Ghosts and Flowers, and will end up on my shortlist of essential recordings by them.
I just wanted to briefly thank Sonic Youth for this disc. It got me through what could have been a bad night, otherwise - just like their earlier albums did for me so often when I was younger. I feel cleansed and rejuvenated (tho' I think I have a cold coming on). It's nice to be reminded of what music can do, from a band that I have thought too little about in recent years.
I didn't get to Quadrophenia at all that night, but I didn't really need to.

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