GOODBYE 20TH CENTURY: A BIOGRAPHY OF SONIC YOUTH by David Browne (Da Capo), 396 pages, $27.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
Author David Browne quickly torpedoes our hopes for sordid tales of Sonic Youth’s backstage bacchanals and unbridled substance abuse, writing early on, “Do not expect any sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
This weighty biography of the legendary New York noise rockers could actually use a little spice. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon (who married early in the band’s career), Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley prove the most level-?headed and pure-?of-?intention punks ever to emerge from New York’s early-?80s no wave movement.
Browne hits his stride describing the nascent context of Sonic Youth’s beginnings, detailing the gritty, violent streets of the Lower East Side and the bizarre personalities like Lydia Lunch, Glenn Braca and Richard Kern who populated the insular no wave scene. He calls the music “the sound of a city dying.”
But the band floundered for most of the decade, and the book, with its perfunctory recounting of each non-?selling album, suffers along with it. It isn’t until after the release of their career-?defining Daydream Nation in 88 that some much-?needed tension arises in the bio.
Crowned flag-?bearers of the 90s “alternative nation,” band members still dealt with personl conflicts between artistic cred and a decent paycheque. Nirvana, Beck and Hole, all of whom were influenced by Sonic Youth, signed with Geffen and sold millions. Yet SY failed to break big and struggled to crack the mainstream despite headlining at Lollapalooza 95. It’s an issue they’ve never fully resolved.
If only, for Sonic Youth’s sake, you could take the respect of your peers to the bank.