Sunday, November 25, 2018

Eyewitness account

If anything was going to induce me to check out Damian Abraham's podcast Turned Out A Punk (as previously recommended by Niall and Rob, fellow members of the Sounding Bored crew), then it was an episode with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. The Fucked Up frontman, excitable at the best of times, can hardly conceal his delight at the opportunity to chat to Moore, whom he credits as the person chiefly responsible for him getting into punk - and, as promised, the ensuing conversation is a hugely enjoyable nerdfest.

Moore begins by talking about his formative influences - including 'Louie Louie' (an "ur-text" for punk) - and early love for weird, outsider music (Bowie, Beefheart, the Stooges, Can - usually plucked from the 49-cent discount bin). Despite his best efforts to get into Yes triple albums and the fact that his first gig was a Rick Wakeman show, prog never spoke to him in the same way that punk did.

The fact that he was an eyewitness to the first explosion of US punk makes his perspective particularly fascinating. His first gig in New York was Suicide at Max's Kansas City; he bumped into Joey Ramone while driving down the street; on his first visit to CBGBs (which was like "going into a witch's house") Richard Hell tried to get him in for free by transferring his hand stamp. Hilly Kristal's legendary venue comes across as a bizarre melting pot frequented not just by punks but also by leftfield writers like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso, all of whom were connected to the scene through Patti Smith.

Most of the bands Moore mentions are household names - or at least they are in this house. But I'd never heard of The Mumps, Milk 'N' Cookies or The Steel Tips. Judging by the YouTube footage I've subsequently found of the latter, they really were as striking and odd a prospect as Moore suggests - twin vocalists, firecracker shirts et al.

Almost concurrently New York was home to the artier, weirder no wave scene, comprising DNA, Mars, Contortions, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks and more. Moore's portrait of those bands and of the city at that time (as a place that was scuzzy and dangerous but also extremely fertile in terms of music, art and culture) very much chimes with Simon Reynolds' in Rip It Up And Start Again, but he admits that while he dabbled in the no wavers' world, as a relatively conservative kid he found it intimidating and as a result cautiously kept a bit of distance.

Kim Gordon came to New York from LA as an artist and so had closer affinities with the people in the no wave scene, and Moore met Lee Ranaldo around the time they were both playing as members of the guitar army assembled by avant-garde composer Glenn Branca. The fact that Moore was the only true punk enthusiast of the three most integral members of Sonic Youth perhaps unsurprisingly meant that the band could never be regarded as punk in any conventional sense.

Similarly, it was only Moore who developed a love of hardcore (both from New York and from Washington DC) and LA punk bands like The Germs. The others merely tolerated his obsessions, and the influence of those genres on the band's music is never overt, though obliquely perceptible at times (Abraham notes, for instance, that hardcore can be heard in the harsh sound of Confusion Is Sex).

There is actually precious little in the podcast about Sonic Youth, Moore instead revelling in the opportunity to enthuse about other bands, fanzines and books in the company of a fellow fanatic. However, the podcast ends with Moore accepting Abraham's invitation to record a follow-up, so I'd imagine the conversation of that episode may well focus more closely on Moore's own music and career trajectory. I for one can't wait.

No comments: