Deep in the Bleeding Heart
There are few artists who can really be called innovative. There are even fewer who really impact whatever unexplored corner of rock and roll they stumble into, and there's almost no one who has held up doing so for more than 20 years.
Since its emergence from the New York club circuit in the early 1980s, Sonic Youth not only forged its own genre, but along the way the group members have authored some of the greatest independent (and otherwise) albums ever recorded. Their songs have always had a beautiful, distorted rawness, whether they exhibited pop tendencies or erupted into torrid expanses of instrumental abuse -- or convincingly married the two. Resonating like the roar of jet engines, the guitars are detuned and almost jarring with the timbre of Thurston Moore's bloodcurdling screams and warm, reassuring candor, a frankness that has echoed throughout what has become the band's lengthy and prolific career.
And it has been a legendary career at that. Along with guitarist/bassist/singer/wife Kim Gordon and guitarist/singer Lee Ranaldo (and what was initially a revolving cast of drummers), Moore has always pressed forward. That instability in the drummer's seat, along with the band's entire sound, all changed drastically in the mid-1980s, and Houston was witness to a central part of that metamorphosis.
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In April 1986, the band made a trek to the Lone Star State for a pair of shows in Houston and Austin. At that point, they were still technically touring on the strength of 1985's Bad Moon Rising -- their last album with drummer Bob Bert, and a turning point, albeit a somewhat obtuse one, for the band. While it exhibited nothing that would have led anyone to believe they'd become great innovators, it was plain that they were beginning to write more cohesive pop songs, which was in sharp contrast to their earlier releases -- a self-titled EP in 1981 and 1983's full-length debut, Confusion Is Sex.
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But Bad Moon still didn't turn many heads, so when the band came to Houston, the performances were intended to debut the material that would make up their next album, their SST debut, EVOL. That album proved to be aptly named. Not only would it be the most significant record the band had made to date, but it also drew the line for a completely new direction. Much of this great leap forward can be credited to former Crucifucks drummer Steve Shelley, who took over the sticks from Bert. The dynamic of the Sonic Youth sound -- then part experimental, part noise, part drone and a tiny bit pop -- changed overnight. Gone were Bert and his comparatively tepid patterns that merely followed along with the music, and in stepped a 22-year-old Michigan lad who exhaustively tore up everything in the band's catalog. He brought a presence and a velocity to Sonic Youth that no one realized the band lacked. No, Shelley didn't re-engineer the sound of Sonic Youth -- he did more. He drove it through a brick wall at 90 miles an hour. What the people of Houston and Austin saw that weekend was a near-perfect machine accumulating still more force.
"Those were our first performances of EVOL," Shelley says. "Although I'd been playing and touring with the band for about a year already -- during that year and my first tours with Sonic Youth we'd been playing 'Expressway' and 'Green Light' from EVOL -- but the Houston and Austin dates were special to us and the EVOL material as a whole song cycle."
That Houston show, the band's live debut here, was at the New Music America Festival downtown, an intimidating presentation at which they shared the stage with local artist Perry Webb and his sound-smuggling act Culturcide. Sonic Youth was perched atop a float amid the downtown skyscrapers, their songs lost against our towering concrete facade.
"I remember our music echoing through the downtown streets of Houston," he says. "Writing the set list collectively onstage as we started -- [touring] was still new to me -- I loved every minute of it."
The previous night's appearance in Austin is documented on the official bootleg Live at the Continental Club. In the liner notes, Ranaldo summed up the band's Houston set thus: "The next day we would sputter through a set for New Music America in Houston, outdoors like a sideshow act on some sort of weird float, our music vanishing amongst the tall ugly bldgs downtown, in broad daylight."
Jump forward to 2004. The scowling skyscrapers are still ugly and everything still vanishes amid their lofty presence, but Sonic Youth will nevertheless be returning here for the first time in eight years, only a few short steps away from where they performed 18 years ago. The band has aged and added a member in producer/multi-instrumentalist Jim O'Rourke. They've weathered trials, such as the time nearly all their gear got stolen in California a few years back, but still they survive and even thrive. Murray Street,their most recent effort, was the band's best record in years, a return to the warm sound they'd charted in the late '80s and a step away from the diffused noise of the very-hit-and-very-miss 2000 album NYC Ghosts and Flowers.
And they return to Houston again on the verge of a new release -- this show comes in the wake of postproduction on their new LP at the Magic Shop in New York. Tentatively set to come out in June, Sonic Youth Nurse will be the third installment in a trilogy about their NYC home base. "And more is being worked on for release after that -- a deluxe edition re-issue of Goo and a DVD featuring our videos from our Geffen years," adds Shelley.
So again we'll see Sonic Youth downtown, caught between albums, and right in the middle of another change in direction. In remembering his experiences here, Shelley recounts his best and worst Texas moments. "Best: visiting Texas and experiencing Meat Joy, Butthole Surfers, Big Boys, Scratch Acid, the Offenders. Worst: looking for the Alamo at 2 a.m."
Nobody tell him the Alamo's in San Antonio, okay?
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