I just finished reading Matthew Stearns's book on Sonic Youth's 1988 masterpiece Daydream Nation, from the 33 1/3 series of books on influential albums. I've been collecting titles from this series ever since I became aware of it last year, and so far have gathered the following:
Kim Cooper on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Neutral Milk Hotel)
Jim Fusilli on Pet Sounds (The Beach Boys)
J. Niimi on Murmur (R.E.M.)
Alex Green on Stone Roses
Dan Leroy on Paul's Boutique (Beastie Boys)
Eliot Wilder on Endtroducing... (DJ Shadow)
Dai Griffiths on OK Computer (Radiohead)
Steve Matteo on Let It Be (The Beatles)
Joe Harvard on The Velvet Underground and Nico
John Cavanagh on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Pink Floyd)
Ben Sisario on Doolittle (Pixies)
Mark Polizzotti on Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan)
The more volumes I've read from this series the more obsessed I've become with adding to my collection. It's a real pleasure to see entire albums explored as cultural artifacts, especially their relationship to specific times and places, how these works often help define the eras from which they've sprung. I've yet to track down the volumes on Unknown Pleasures and Double Nickels on the Dime, and I'm definitely looking forward to the planned volumes on Wowee Zowee, Illmatic, London Calling, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers), Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, and People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. The list will only grow, I'm sure.
The first time I heard Daydream Nation remains incredibly vivid for me, because it's an album that completely transformed me: it was in Massachusetts during the summer of 1989. I had recently dropped out of high school and I had no idea what I'd be doing besides washing dishes at a vegetarian restaurant back in Tampa. I recorded the album from a friend's copy onto a blank tape, which I must have played hundreds of times over the next five years. I can recall the late August sun coming through my windows as the cassette played loudly on a cheap boom box in my room. Or how the music completely filled up the car one night as I was driving back to Cape Cod from Providence. For me, this record has always been a visionary work of art, from the very first time I heard it, before I even knew what "visionary" might mean. The way it's sequenced, beginning with Kim Gordon's whispered invocations ("Spirit desire / We will fall"), and how the whole recording evokes a series of seasons in the manner of Rimbaud's "O saisons, ô châteaux," music as a form of concrete poetry, an avenue into unknown realms.
I saw Sonic Youth in concert for the first time on their Goo tour, when they played at my university. Their show was on November 20th, 1990 at a small theater on campus at USF, with Jesus Lizard opening and Steve Albini doing the sound for the show. Seeing them play live convinced me of the magnitude of their musical prowess, the way Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore's guitars seemed to hover over the entire stage in stereo, anchored by Kim Gordon's bass in the middle and Steve Shelley's manic/precise drums at the back. The fact that Gordon knocked a drunken frat boy off the stage with her bass (before he was pummeled by security) just made the night that much better – she never lost her place in the song when she did that. I saw them a few months later, on campus again, this time at the much larger USF Sundome stadium on March 10th, 1991, opening for Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Ignorant hippies booing for them to get off stage just made them play better, as if they were trying to rip the cloth ceiling off the dome. I distinctly remember Moore playing his guitar against the edge of the stage, pulling it back and forth with the chord, as it screeched and wailed, shredding any memory of what Neil Young might have sounded like afterwards. The last time I saw them was at the Roseland in NYC on April 26th, 1996, more brilliance in a small enough space to really get the full impact of their monstrously beautiful sound. All of these shows were equally mind-blowing for me, nights when I felt I was not only witnessing historical moments in art, but when noise and melody battled each other for the audiences' attention and minds.
While I don't always agree with Stearns when it comes to his interpretations of certain lyrics on Daydream Nation, I definitely enjoyed his book. He had access to the band, so his chapters on the making of the album and his interpretations of the songs are interspersed with commentary from all four musicians. Reading this book gives you a chance to listen to the album again through someone else's ears, someone who obviously loves the album and recognizes it as a masterpiece that marks a turning point, not only in music but also in art and literature. Hearing that album for the first time in 1989, only reinforced my decision to immerse myself in poetry, to write and read for no other reason than love and discovery.
One of the qualities of Sonic Youth that Stearns analyzes quite well is their eclectic influences, from fellow SST Records bands like The Minutemen and Hüsker Dü, to older figures like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. During one interview, Ranaldo acknowledges that Joni Mitchell is being addressed (partly at least) in the song "Hey Joni," something I'd always suspected. Ranaldo also identifies Dylan's "Visions of Johanna" (the acoustic version on Biograph) as a huge influence on the song:
"Somehow that song just sledgehammered me. I mean that's got to be one of the best songs ever, in a way. The visionary quality of it was so real in a way that I'd never picked up on before that it opened my eyes to this whole thing... Somehow that summer before Daydream Nation, that version of 'Visions' really made a huge impact on me and if I look through those reams and reams of poems that I have from that period now I really see a lot of it stemming from just recognizing the power of all the metaphorical stuff that Dylan was doing and trying to reach toward that in some ways."
I recall reading a comment Ranaldo made to Rolling Stone in 1995 when Jerry Garcia died, mentioning how much his playing had impacted him at a younger age. His comment had surprised me when I first read it, since Sonic Youth seemed so distant from the Grateful Dead to me. But again, it's precisely that eclecticism a guitarist like Ranaldo would share with Garcia, being influenced by an unusual range of sources, never being limited to a single aesthetic.
Stearns notes many of the moments on the album that make listeners want to hear them over and over again, like in "Hey Joni" when Ranaldo screams: "Kick it!" just before Shelley jumps in with a propulsive drum beat that transports the song into a different key. Another one of those amazing moments (there are so many of them in Sonic Youth) is the mellow prologue to "Candle." Stearns describes it thus:
"There are these moments in music, fleeting moments, but when they catch you at just the right time, with the sun at just the right angle, they can sink down into personal territories with such force that they take on a kind of monumental permanence, like a favorite building you go to for its particular sense of space, line, and light, or a trusted confidant you seek out for counsel, or Rue de Vielle du Temps in Paris. [...] There have been occasions, and I shit you not, when I have listened to the introductory passage of "Candle" repeatedly up to twenty, twenty-five times."
This year, Sonic Youth will be playing Daydream Nation in its entirety at various concerts, none of which will be anywhere near me. Even though they long ago signed with a major label, they've managed to stay faithful to their art, producing brilliant work well into their third decade as a band, and basing their aesthetic on a constant desire to evolve and experiment. So, if anything, this book is merely a prelude to what a full-length study of their expansive career might look like. A fantastic prelude.