07 May 2009

Thurston Moore and his precursors

If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem, 'Fears and Scruples' by Browning foretells Kafka's work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics' vocabulary, the word 'precursor' is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.
This quote is from ‘Kafka and His Precursors’ by Jorge Luis Borges. The entire essay is less than a thousand words and can be read online here. The conceit is that while the idea of the ‘precursor’ conventionally suggests ‘progenitor’, suggests a lineage, a progression in which cultural ancestors beget new artists teleologically, the process is better understood in reverse. We read a writer, we listen to a band, we are reminded of disparate but similar work (Zeno, Kierkegaard, Browning say, … or Sun Ra, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground, Glenn Branca) and then – only then – are these artists grouped together into a recognizable set: Kafka’s Precursors, Sonic Youth’s Precursors. The present creates it own past.

Now k-punk (in his response to my earlier post) is absolutely right about the current nostalgia circuit. (As Marx put it, rock history repeats itself first as deluxe CD reissues, then as inglorious reunion tours. Then as deluxe DVDs of the reunion tours.) And he’s right of course about the vacuousness of the allegedly ‘alternative’ music which prevails commercially; it’s unsurrectionary mallternative rock. But should Sonic Youth really have to carry the can for this stuff just because some elements within it hail them as precursors? Proverbially the sins of the father are visited upon the son. In cultural history though, the sins of the offspring are all too often visited upon the parents, as Nietzsche’s ghost would attest. The street finds its own use for things, and the same thing happens to music once it’s released; as Ian Curtis would no doubt realize were he around to suffer The Editors.

Sonic Youth may have ended up sounding terminally like themselves, but they are formally innovative, which even in the 80s is some achievement. And while they are unashamedly fans of other bands, writers and painters, as well as being musicians themselves, it’s not at all clear to me that they were the first to be so, nor the group who made it acceptable. They formed from the ashes of No Wave, an aggressively Year Zero project, but No Wave was such an extreme standpoint that it imploded almost as soon as it had begun – it was a scene that lasted barely months so stringent and un-livable was its own fragile logic. Punk, the real touchstone for SY (and No Wave), was rhetorically a tabula rasa, but surely everyone knows by now that punk was no Year Zero: it created its own precursors for you wholesale: Jonathan Richman, the VU, The Stooges, the mods whose drainpipe jeans and skinny ties Blondie would hunt down in thrift stores, The Who, covered by Patti Smith (in a b-side which pretty much invented, explored and foreclosed upon the entire musical ground of 90s riot grrl). And who compiled Nuggets? Patti Smith’s guitar player, Lenny Kaye. Now That’s What I Call Curatorial. I think SY’s undisguised fandom is something they carry over from punk, a demolition of the fourth wall of the stage of performance which is designed to have a liberatory, anti-hierarchical effect, putting the band down among the audience.













As an act of archaeology, to dig back to Bad Moon Rising, to find that brief sonic mirage of The Stooges’ ‘Not Right’ – revenant, disembodied, distorted, not right – and make it the onlie begetter of the necromantic rock heritage culture which summoned up and put on The Stooges circa ’07, is hideously clever. It’s a stretch though, and I would argue it’s only available as a claim because SY kept going and in a winners-write-the-history way, can be credited with exerting a gravitational effect on the subsequent musical continuum. There are swathes of SY’s 80s contemporaries who fell by the wayside and thereby escape k-punk’s censure, their demise saving them from being on the scene of the heritage-industry’s crimes in ’09. As Simon Reynolds points out in his response to Mark, The Jesus and Mary Chain were far more retro-necro: they took the Velvet Underground, added an 80s drum sound and some hairspray. The Smiths were deeply retrograde, and Morissey’s lovelorn desolation is equal parts starstruck fandom as it is interpersonal angst. Unrequited love is unrequited love, whether it’s for the person sat next to you in a darkened underpass or for a sordidly glamorous dream of a band or Sandie Shaw. Fandom is written into rock at the deepest level, with The Stones as blues scholars, Dylan recycling lyrics from Harry Smith’s (profoundly curatorial) Anthology of American Folk Music, McGuinn copping moves from Africa/Brass and Lennon’s dreams of being Little Richard. (I point this out not to excuse subsequent retro idolatry, but to erase any simple assumptions that, it was All Better in the Sixties; ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive…’)



















But let’s grant that Sonic Youth went too far when they ran that Stooges tape through their Marshall stacks. If that’s so, then what kind of crepuscular Pandora’s Box – forget Pandora, it’s Miss Havisham that’s needed here – has Burial opened, has Fennesz opened, has Joker opened? “Rock is necessarily tied up with a romanticism of youth (whereas electronic music isn't, in part because of its 'cerebral' nature, as Mike Banks observed when I interviewed him)” writes Mark. Up to the bracket, entirely accurate. Rock is the sound of teenage lust, teenage kicks, teenage riots, and the fact that the form is dominated by non-teenagers recalling the hormonal intensity of teenage experience only heightens the excruciating sense of elegiac belatedness. But what will the consequences be when hauntology’s second generation hits? Electronic music has been doomed to the same process ever since ’87 got branded as the second Summer of Love… ( ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,/but to be young was very heaven!’) And the current crisis over the ’nuum is simply the inevitable function of its age, as producers struggle to handle the ever-increasing weight of dancefloor history on their shoulders, to try and make sense of its proliferating off-shoots. Do they destroy in order to rebuild, declaring Year Zero and looking to build on scorched earth? Or do they remake/remodel and renovate? To return to taste, isn’t it the case that hauntology can be dangerously implicated here… doesn’t hauntology threaten to become an exercise in good taste, in the right kind of nostalgia?
















A penultimate point. It’s interesting to me that Mark presents the band as essentially record-collecting dilettantes, who know good music when they hear it, and are handy enough musically to knock off a reasonable simulacrum for their own releases, because it implies a certain sympathy with their taste and sensibility. Good taste has many meanings. Sonic Youth are banished from ‘mainstream’ taste forever: Kim Gordon in growl mode, the abstract-expressionist noise breaks, performance artists Bob Flanagan and Sherry Rose wiping their arses with stuffed toys on Dirty's artwork … And Thurston Moore’s taste is distinctly unreliable: look at the dreadful bands he helped sign to Geffen. And the postpunk ‘crystalline ascesis’ Mark refers to, the ruling certain bands beyond the pale… SY have always been despised by many precisely for being elitist snobs who look down on those who like the wrong bands, bands insufficiently weird or difficult. It’s actually this aspect which I’d like to emphasize. Having tried to put their ‘retro’ in a different context, I’ve come dangerously close to describing a po-mo mise-en-abyme in which everyone is freefalling into perpetual referentiality. I’d rather insist on their similarity to some of the postpunk ideologues, in that while their personal canon might have been different, they were equally insistent upon policing its edges.

So ... we have k-punk and Sonic Youth, sharing an admiration for whole swathes of postpunk, pop, and modernism low and high (Burroughs, P. K. Dick, William Gibson, Joyce, The Carpenters etc), a k-punk who objects to Sonic Youth because they have good taste, a k-punk bored moreover by Sonic Youth because the band’s aesthetic manoeuvres are so ‘easily verbally explicable’ ... their every move almost precognitively understood and decodable by him … Could it be ... that k-punk is repelled from Sonic Youth, so instinctively against them, not because they’re so egregiously wrong, but because he understands them all too well? That some of it is too close to heim? Could it be … that stalking k-punk through the halls and corridors of musical history is a Manhattanite double he dare not acknowledge, a double named S---- Y----?

9 comments:

Seb said...

So glad to see I'm not the only one who thinks pinpointing Bad Moon Rising is way late in the pop-rock's roll-call of retroactive shout-outs.

Even more glad to see someone cook up a convincing explanation of K-Punk's oddly intense enmity towards SY. The closest I could get is that this has been festering thorn in his side for a long time, perhaps because he just "didn't get" something so cred-heavy. That he feels them to be shamelessly obvious doppelgangers... brilliant!

ZoneStyxTravelcard said...

Seb,

K-punk is right on the money about BMR in one sense though: a narrower sense related to SY rather than the subsequent post-Nevermind culture.

SY have pretty much ended up as career curators as much as career musicians – they edit anthologies, introduce books, put together exhibitions and compilations, narrate documentaries, conduct Q&As etc.

So looking back on the different strands within their discography, that snippet of The Stooges (in retrospect) becomes more important, because it seems to prefigure what they end up doing. Present day SY have created that hyper-referential version of themselves as a precursor, even though at the time it was more of a flickering subtext than an entire blueprint...

I'd defend 80s SY, after that you could debate endlessly when exactly they run out of creative steam. There are isolated high spots in the 90s-00s albums, but still... There's a lot that could be said about career longevity, the listeners' libidinal trajectory after (say) the 6th album of any band, whether artists can/should be in state of perpetual becoming (Dylan, Neil Young, Ornette Coleman), different models of fandom, as pan-historical critic, as spouse, as football supporter (John Peel and The Fall FC)... I'll try and make sense of that list in another post.

Seb said...

It'd certainly be silly to deny the curatorial role Sonic Youth have settled (deeply) into; perhaps this is what great musicians (who always play the dual role of great music fans) who aren't "junkie fuck-ups" do with the time & energy that would otherwise be spent on the nod or scoring. But the band advertised their referential fandom from the very start - even their name is a mash-up of Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5 & reggae artist Big Youth.

(And surely you've seen the video for "Teenage Riot". The damn thing's a Rosetta Stone for underground '80s culture.)

So I'm not looking to pick a fight on those grounds; yes, K-Punk is absolutely right in that regard. What bothered me more (and I'd say bothered you as well) was the his hypocrisy, both philosophical & aesthetic. Philosophical because, as you point out, dance music and especially hauntology is equally guilty of rearview-mirror myopia; aesthetic because how the hell can you be so up on The Fall, The Pop Group, and the Birthday Party* and have no affection for Sonic Youth's music? It's barely a bunny hop from "Mere Pseud. Mag Ed" to "Kissability", or from "The Friend Catcher" to "Death Valley '69".

(*) Nick Cave has somehow escaped relatively unscathed in all this, despite Simon Reynolds outlining his complete curatorial CV in the Guardian blog post about SY. Good on him, I guess...

Mike Beggs said...

Hey I'm with you all the way in this debate. Isn't there also an irony in that the vast majority of people who have heard the No Wavers have heard them via arch-curator Brian Eno's compilation?

eamonn said...

k-punk is a sonic youth songtitle? No?

ZoneStyxTravelcard said...

I'm not aware of one... They have a habit of renaming songs on live bootlegs and different formats etc... so perhaps there's a song name similar to 'k-punk' on a non-studio album somewhere?

Pete Um said...

Arguing about SY can come down to semantics. I've just never been able to listen to them without getting a certain smell in my nostrils. Something Not Right.

ZoneStyxTravelcard said...

Arguing about anything can come down to semantics... if you let it.

But sometimes semantics is where it's at.

Take the recent 'wot do you call it' discussions which you can pick up at blissblog amongst other places - naming (and renaming) genres can create (and destroy or reinvent) those genres. Don't you think?

Pete Um said...

Well that, obviously, is another argument. And yes, I wouldn't rid the world of semantics just to have the last word on Sonic Youth. In some ways the bloglash has made me give them the benefit of the doubt in terms of their career and what it means, and maybe it just comes down to taste (whatever that is), but something about where they're coming from musically just sets my teeth on edge. It's similar (but different) with Burial. Ah... I dunno...