Sonic YOUTH roared to the front of the underground music scene in 1988 with "Daydream Nation," a double-LP still regarded as their masterpiece. Oozing with detuned guitars, hoarse spoken/sung/shouted vocals, near-abstract lyrics and crescendos of noise, there was nothing to compare it to. They sounded like they'd come from the future -- or the hippest, grittiest block in New York City at the very least -- on a mission to change rock 'n' roll. Rolling Stone presciently described the album as "the sound of the New Rock Nation rising." David Browne's biography of Sonic Youth, "Goodbye 20th Century," is as much a chronicle of the combustion of music and popular culture they helped ignite as it is an earnest portrait of the band and examination of their work.
"Daydream Nation" garnered ecstatic reviews and sold well for an independent release. Sensing the Next Big Thing, Browne recounts, the major labels swarmed the band. After a lot of wooing from executives, Sonic Youth went with Los Angeles-based Geffen Records, in part because Geffen would allow them complete creative control. As one friend of the band noted, "They wanted it on their own terms, and their own terms are completely askew from what pop music is." When Kim Gordon, the band's bassist, sometime singer and full-time arbiter of cool, called the label to let it know the papers had been signed, she also offered a piece of advice: The next band they should sign should be a group called Nirvana.
It was Nirvana, of course, who turned out to be the real Next Big Thing. In 1990, Sonic Youth released their major label debut, "Goo," with the single "Kool Thing" to encouraging sales of more than 200,000. A year later, Nirvana's fist-pumping anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit" fully roused Generation X from its slacker slumber. The album it was on, "Nevermind," sold millions and loosed a torrent of rough-hewn bands on mainstream America, igniting the grunge craze that reinvigorated commercial radio and the flannel industry. Almost overnight "alternative" was the most powerful marketing buzzword in the country.
Sonic Youth were not a grunge band, but they had played a decisive role in breaking open the underground music scene. Throughout the '90s, they rode the wave as revered pioneers of alternative rock, headlining the massive Lollapalooza tours, getting the full major label push for their grungiest album, 1992's "Dirty" (get it?), touring with proto-grunge icon Neil Young and even appearing on "The Simpsons." But by the end of the decade, much of the steam was out of alternative rock, and Geffen and the band adjusted to the reality that Sonic Youth's chance at the really big big-time had passed.
So Sonic Youth went back to what they had been for the six years before "Daydream Nation": a cult band, albeit now a much bigger cult band. To some extent, this seems to have been a relief for the musicians. By letting go their pop-star ambitions and the expectations that went with them, they were free to be artists again, free to pursue ridiculously uncommercial projects such as "Goodbye 20th Century," an ambitious two-CD set filled with the band's interpretations of works by new music composers, including John Cage, Steve Reich and James Tenney.
Compared with Browne's previous music bio, "Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley," his subjects here offer little personal drama. In his introduction, he warns his readers, "Don't expect any sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," meaning that, despite their edgy image, the members of Sonic Youth have led lives about as tumultuous as those led by members of the local PTA, of which, now in their 50s, they might even be members.
On a nostalgia trip
Nonetheless, if you can remember how deliriously new and untouchably cool Sonic Youth sounded the first time you heard them, Browne's book will suck you in. It is a nostalgia trip for those who recall peeling the plastic off Sonic Youth LPs, and a vibrant life and times of one of the most bracingly original and influential bands in rock history. Particularly enjoyable is Browne's account of the group's early years: mixing with the New York art scene, gigging at CBGBs, touring with the uber-gloomy Swans in the back of a smoke-filled van and recording fast and cheap to create music that was close to art, without letting go of the joy of rock 'n' roll. Browne sheds light on their sound by tracing the band's influences from the Velvet Underground and Television to the No Wave movement and Glenn Branca's alternately tuned guitar orchestras. He also fleshes out the personalities and occasional tensions behind the band's deadpan image.
Harder than recording the band's history, though, is delineating their influence. Browne's book is the first bio of the band in 10 years, so he has the advantage of perspective. Even still, Browne flounders at times, giving more ink to Sonic Youth's involvement in the careers of B-list celebrities than their influence on other rock bands. Browne's difficulties stem from how much a part of the zeitgeist Sonic Youth have been, touching such diverse worlds as art, fashion, film, free jazz, poetry, television and zines. But he gets the big picture right. Now that "Daydream Nation" is on the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry, Browne says, Sonic Youth have become "elder counter culture statesmen . . . keepers of the music-art-literature flame even as, in the culture at large, that flame seemed to grow dimmer with each passing year."
Nearly three decades after forming, Sonic Youth are still together, still releasing new music, still pursuing an impressive array of fringy side projects and still superstars in the narrow slice of American culture that -- accept the label or not -- remains alternative. Last year, they toured to a wave of nostalgic press and sold-out concerts in support of the CD reissue of "Daydream Nation," recreating the entire album live for audiences, some of whose members were too young to have tied their shoes when the album was released 20 years ago.
Reflecting both on their longevity and their cult status, lead guitarist Lee Ranaldo suggests with the kind of half-irony typical of Sonic Youth: "We're the Rolling Stones or Grateful Dead of our generation, or something."
David French is a regular contributor to Down Beat and JazzTimes.