Anyone picking up Sonic Life in the hope or expectation of candid revelations is likely to be disappointed. Aside from a few passages (such as when he laments gradually drifting apart from his childhood friend and fellow adventurer in sound Harold Paris), former Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore steers clear of personal reflection. Most notably, he remains relatively tightlipped on the breakdown of his marriage to bandmate Kim Gordon, which precipitated the group’s demise (though some might read his description of new partner Eva Prinz as “a wish come true”, echoing the lyrics of the Sonic Youth ballad-of-sorts Kotton Krown, as unnecessarily hurtful).
Instead, Sonic Life chronicles the band’s long history, from formation in 1981 to final album The Eternal in 2009 – an insider’s account tracing their trajectory from rotating drummers, through the gradual accumulation of underground kudos, to a major-label move, commercial fortune and tastemaker/godfather status. Along the way, we hear how they helped to facilitate Nirvana’s stratospheric rise (and witnessed their tragic fall), suffered a calamitous performance at a benefit gig organised by Neil Young, dealt with the devastating impact of 9/11, and found themselves singing Hey Jude with Paul McCartney.
But it’s the pre-SY segment that is most engaging. Moore is a guitar hero, and like all heroes he has an origin story to tell – of teenage infatuation with the Stooges, the Ramones and Patti Smith; of the visceral, chaotic, mind-blowing spectacle of gigs by Suicide and the Dead Boys; of initial forays into music making with the Coachmen. Above all, he recreates for the reader the extraordinarily fertile and febrile atmosphere of late 1970s/early 1980s New York – a city on the brink of bankruptcy, blighted by crime and violence, but home to a dense network of musicians, artists, galleries, venues and hangouts. Sonic Youth’s genius was to channel this creative maelstrom, this relentless collision of low brow and high art, into song. Moore’s puppy-dog enthusiasm is infectious, and his voracious appetite for music bleeds through on every page.
Sonic Life: A Memoir, Thurston Moore (Faber)
Price: £20. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD