Thurston Moore on His New Book “Sonic Life: A Memoir” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Thurston Moore on His New Book “Sonic Life: A Memoir”

A Whirlwind of Thrashing

Oct 27, 2023 Web Exclusive
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Any artist figuratively bragging about bleeding for their craft would be stopped short by Thurston Moore’s Sonic Life: A Memoir. That’s not only because of the doorstopper’s near 500 page heft, but also because the Sonic Youth guitarist makes those pages whiz by with jolting anecdotes, including one about how he repeatedly lacerated his finger, spurting blood across the stage, while playing his famously abrasive riffs. Or as he puts it, during a recent video call with Under the Radar: “A whirlwind of thrashing.”

“It’s not something I enjoyed doing, you know. I wasn’t trying to be Iggy Pop or [Suicide’s] Alan Vega on stage, theatrically cutting myself,” Moore says with a smile, adding “But it would happen. And it added a certain flavor to the gig, I guess.”

Moore’s meticulous new memoir uses unvarnished, highly readable prose to also recall whiling his youth away at book and record shops in sleepy Bethel, Connecticut; his pilgrimages to New York at the height of its ’70s Bedlam lawlessness; how he and his Sonic Youth bandmates fused avant garde rock with hardcore in the ’80s and ’90s; his frequently funny encounters with punky contemporaries like Henry Rollins of Black Flag and Mike Watt of Minutemen; and much more. His speaking style runs counter to his writing—during our interview, his answers to most questions were thoughtful, paragraphs-long, and ricocheted between eras, scenes, and references. He wore gold colored headphones that complimented his grey hair, which he wears shorter than in Sonic Youth’s heyday. Behind him: shelves crammed with visibly dogeared books, running mostly horizontal, with a few stacked vertically on top of others where there was still room. The head and neck of an electric guitar was visible in the left hand corner of the screen. He mostly leaned in closely to the camera, but during some anecdotes he would sit back, let his gaze drift through the decades and gesture for emphasis, the white Dischord Records logo visible on his black t-shirt.

Below, Moore tells us about how his memoir is not the sensationalist tit for tat everyone might be expecting after his ex-wife and bandmate Kim Gordon’s explosive tell-all Girl in a Band: A Memoir. He also delves into how New York’s niche musicians contended with an unnervingly experimental “underground to the underground” in the ’70s and ’80s. And, thankfully, Moore details how he got his finger to stop bleeding during shows.

Kyle Mullin (Under the Radar): So have you done a lot of press for the book yet?

It’s been getting slightly more hectic as the days go by. As you may well know, I have to stay in London instead of flying to the U.S. to tour the book, which changes the game a bit. So I’m doing mostly everything here, over the phone and Zoom.

Yes I was sorry to read about that and hope you’re feeling better soon. It’s not ideal timing for your book launch, is it?

I have a bit of a heart ailment, nothing too serious. But my cardiologists got me on some meds and told me I can’t fly this month or next until I’m in the clear. There’s never a good time for something like this, though. The fact that it’s happening right around the time I was going to jet off and do a book tour, where I had to fly every day for a month from city to city, is just one of those happenstance things.

You know, though, the last thing I want to do is not support and work with all the independent booksellers that I was dealing with. I was going to do most of, if not all my readings and Q&A’s at places like that. They did all this prep. That’s what I feel worst about. I’m never one to cancel, being a war horse touring musician. Cancelers become quickly known in my industry, right?

Speaking of independent bookstores: I enjoyed the early chapters of Sonic Life where you recount being young and aimless, and finding copious mind-blowing works at mom and pop record and bookstores in your Connecticut hometown. How does it feel to come full circle selling a book of your own at places like that?

I’ve always had a great relationship with the world of publishing and books. And I’ve done independent publishing since the ’80s, with fanzines and later poetry journals that I would staple and send around. And I would fully embrace writing opportunities for any kind of anthologies. Writing was essential to my own creative impulse. I always give it equal value to music.

And so I always harbored a frustrated desire to be a writer, and be recognized as such. And to have books of my own exist in any kind of bookstore, whether it’s independent or corporate. The fact that this book will come out, and possibly be in a window or two, is very exciting for me. Because books and records were always such artful objects. That’s why I’ve amassed such a library over the years. To the point of realizing I don’t have enough days in my life to actually get through all the books I own, let alone listen to the music I’ve acquired on every single medium, be it cassette or CD or vinyl. That makes me ask myself why I don’t get rid of it all, and be spartan and Buddhist, and just enjoy the sound of birdsongs and get over it. But I love these artful documents that people use in exchange and sharing of knowledge and information. I feel comfortable in that kind of world.

For me, meditation is spending hours going through dusty old bookstores and record stores. Of course a lot of those things have gone missing in the last couple of decades. It’s funny— just before you called, I was reading about Bandcamp being sold to a corporatized company, and all these workers being laid off. It’s been such a good forum for music, the kind that didn’t necessitate any PR for those who couldn’t afford it. Now the fear is that day is gone. It was the only online music sharing I had any interest in. It makes me ask: “Now what?”

Do you have faith that there will always be something else that comes along? Have you seen an ebb and flow over the years?

I don’t really have too much anxiety about change, as such. Or a need to say: “In my days, sonny, we used to drive three hours to find the new Clash seven inch.” But what was once a normalized situation of searching for cultural documents, is now boutique. I think Amazon and the other huge suppliers will be doing, like, 99 percent of the business going forward.

But yes, there’s always a lot of death knells. Then things don’t necessarily end, but instead become something else. You’re seeing that in cinema now too. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes as well. It’s always been about change.

It’s like New York City for me, living there for 30 years. Each generation I would meet was like: “Oh, you should have seen this city in the ’60s. Or the ’50s. I was like: “Yeah, I would have liked to.” My experience was the mid ’70s onwards. And even musicians I would meet in the ’90s would talk about missing out on the “good old days.” I’d tell them not to wish for something you didn’t have.

You write about a few of those eras in the book— being new to New York and seeing early Patti Smith gigs at CBGB’s; Sonic Youth’s breakthrough shows; and being blown away by one of Nirvana’s first gigs in New Jersey. How did it feel to not only write about your band and your experience, but how it connected to part of a lineage?

The thing about the “good old days” is they show up at any given time. I initially wanted to not only write about the history of Sonic Youth, but also my history as a young person coming to New York, and connecting it to these other musicians, and how we connected with these subcultures.

And I wanted to write about specific events that I thought were critical, but in a way that’s almost benign. There’d be no huge epiphanies, or disparities with personalities, or even in my personal life or my divorce with Kim. I just didn’t want to go there.

I wanted to focus on this experience of discovery that was continual. And the inspirations not only for myself or the band, but for this community coming to maturity in the late ’70s, early ’80s. Documents like Patti Smith’s first poetry book, or just her as a performer changing the game in the mid to late ’70s. You know, a woman coming out as really strong, with an androgynous energy, and being more attuned to the nature of urbanity. As opposed to classic escapist rock ‘n’ roll, hippy life. Running off to the country and being in Woodstock, and all this kind of stuff. She changed so many things. But not for much of the mainstream at all. It was basically for the underground.

I was born in ’58, when this music was also born. Since then, rock has become a relic. But I wanted to write about when it was still a teenager. Punk became the rowdy teen kicking back at its older brothers.

You know, the first person in the book is my brother. He’s eight years older than I am, and he played guitar with all his hippie friends, and they kind of bequeathed me a guitar. And I got fully into the Ramones, and this entirely new voice, Patti Smith. And later, this band called Suicide. All these things that are really marginal. Somebody of my sensibility would then try to analyze why they’re so attuned to this subversive music. I don’t think I ever really answered that question. I just sort of accept it.

Punk rock was always sort of a dark genre. At the same time, it was an extremely liberated forum for whatever activism you felt politically. The only thing it kicked against was fascism. So any kind of Nazi iconography that would come in would make you wonder: “Are they embracing that just to make a statement of absurdity?” Then everybody turned against it. It was abhorrent initially, but also almost comical. When you look back now though, it’s just completely and terribly embarrassing. Because these children were playing around with really dangerous motifs. I think the whole idea early on was to play with danger. So Sid Vicious was being the lunk headed teenager, going “Oh, I’m wearing a swastika. Yay! I’m being stupid.” But it defies explanation, because it’s nothing but a reference to human degradation.

You cover more innocent juvenile behavior in the book as well. One of the best examples was an incident with Nick Cave at a hotel pool.

Yeah, Nick has always been very dapper, yet disheveled at the same time. This was a post gig gathering, and we were just on beach chairs at a poolside inside of a hotel. I was just enjoying a post-concert hot toddy, but the younger cats were jumping into the pool, including members of Mudhoney, who were just having the time of their lives. [Guitarist] Mark Arm pushed the desk clerk into the pool, because he was yelling at everybody. It was really shocking, like: “Oh my God, he just pushed the boss man into the pool!” And Nick, who had grown up embracing anti-authoritarianism, walked over and said, “You sir, are my hero.” It was really kind of wonderful to see.

I also laughed at Mike Watt taking his shirt off to be in solidarity with Bikini Kill when they went topless while declaring their feminism.

There are so many stories like that. The book was initially three times longer. My editor and I had to edit all last year. At first, I thought I needed content. So I wrote about a lot of different bands and records and events. Then we had to draw the line on what was too arcane. But some of the stuff that we did keep was still kind of obscure. So it’ll be interesting to see how a mainstream reader will process a book like this. I figured some of the stories are just stories that have a certain energy to them, and they’re stories about discovery. So you don’t have to know who Mike Watt is, or who Bikini Kill is. The stories transcend that.

Or, an event like Noise Fest, which I curated in New York in 1981. It was nine days at a gallery with all this underground music from Minneapolis and North Carolina. And I wrote about that at length, giving histories of all these different bands that were playing. It was like 20 pages, and now it’s two paragraphs. We just decided it’s super interesting for anybody who really wants to go there. But for the casual reader, it’s a lot to ask. I have a whole other manuscript that I can sort of put together of specific things. But they didn’t help the flow of the book. And it’s already pretty big. I mean, it’s kind of a doorstop.

I did years of research. I was going through microfilm of all the daily newspapers around the country, and all the Village Voice issues, finding out exact specific dates, or getting all these ephemeral documents into chronological folders. So I have a huge database, and I would say I used 5 percent of it.

Wow.

So yeah, it’s great to have, and something I would share with the other members of the band for sure, if it’s necessary.

When it comes to the casual type of readers you mentioned— I love Mike Watt and Henry Rollins, and you guys. But there were all kinds of bands, especially in the early pages detailing your first CBGB visits, that I wasn’t familiar with. So it might work on many levels for a lot of people. I reached out to some of those older artists that you described seeing as a concert goer. Mark Cunningham from Mars replied to my question about you citing him as a key influence, writing:

“New York in the ’70s had such a vibrant multi-level avant-garde music scene, starting in the ’60s with the Velvets and free jazz, to Suicide and the first wave of CBGB bands in ’74, followed by No Wave. All of us built on what came before and tried to break new ground, which is what Sonic Youth and others continued to do in the early ’80s. Thurston has always been clear about this, and we love him for that, his big generous heart and his massive music love and knowledge.”

I’m curious what your response to that is.

Mark has always been very aware of experimental music’s trajectory in New York. There’s this idea of punk being essentially experimental music, in the context of rock ‘n’ roll. Patti Smith’s group was a bar band in a way. But they were still rough and raw. That alone went up against the the sound of the mid ’70s, this really clinical progressive rock, or a very high technique kind of playing, even like The Allman Brothers or something. If it wasn’t very refined, it was considered radical, and preternaturally kind of experimental.

So it allowed all these disparate voices like Talking Heads or Television or Blondie to have a very different take on how to make modern music. Mars, to be honest, was the most interesting because they were the most extreme. For them, it was like actually stepping away from standardized technique and creating your own voice, while being very engaged in the radical music of Albert Ayler or Ed Coleman, free jazz, or like John Cage’s kind of ideas. And that was exciting, you know, in the mid ’70s. So for somebody like Mark Cunningham, that was kind of obvious in his approach to being in a band like Mars.

Sonic Youth really responded to Mars because of that. When I first saw Mars, I felt like I was listening to the most unapproachable, unlistenable, inscrutable thing in the world. I was awed by the audacity of this group being on stage. It was this droning, depressing, discordant mess. Sometime later, I realized it was this completely beautiful, singular music.

And then you have people like Lydia Lunch, who were kind of architects of inscrutable art. Lydia would tell me about Mars when they first began, when they were originally called China. She immediately thought it was musical bliss. It spoke to her tumultuous feelings of being alive in New York City as a 19-year-old girl. She is a very intense personality, and Mars was like her soundtrack.

It was a super interesting period. You know, Byron Coley and I wrote a book about No Wave years ago. It’s an oral history. One thing we covered a lot: as soon as anybody in those bands played any semblance of rock ‘n’ roll, or traditional motifs, it was over for them in the No Wave scene. So Lydia starts a band called 8 Eyed Spy, and they’re a swamp rock boogie kind of thing. Then they’re done in No Wave. Contortions become more funkified. And it’s over for them too.

No Wave is done, because it was not rock per say. Out of the gate, it was this fully formed, assaultive idea that almost could not progress to anything else, because it already came out as it was. So for me, it continues to be one of the most interesting periods of an underground to the underground. It didn’t exist because of punk rock. It existed concurrently with it.

There weren’t really scenes in New York like this before that, apart from folk in the ’60s, and that was in the village. These scenes didn’t happen until the mid ’70s around CBGB, and Max’s. And all of a sudden you had the Ramones, Blondie, Patti, Television, and Talking Heads. Three or four of these bands would play on any given night. After seeing these lineups over and over again, you’d have this realization that there was a scene happening. So, yeah, I think ’76 is when it really becomes pertinent.

You know, I should send a book to Mark. I believe he’s still in Barcelona.

Although No Wave was notoriously intense, you and the subsequent next generation were no slouches. I especially loved reading in your book about how you’d strum hard enough to cut your finger on your guitar.

I was inspired by the energy that [avant garde musician and Moore’s mentor] Glenn Branca was bringing to his playing. And then of course being really enthralled by these musicians half a generation younger than me—the hardcore scene around Minor Threat and Black Flag, and how physically intense those bands were on stage. I wanted to engage more and be in the moment, in a whirlwind of thrashing.

So I wanted to make this kind of art rock, but with a punk energy. Intellectualized music that was also really raw and primal. I thought Sonic Youth could be this balance between the two. I don’t know if Kim, Lee [Ranaldo], or Steve [Shelley] felt the same way, but I think they were okay with letting me try to realize a lot of that. They’d always respond well to Minor Threat or Black Flag. But I think my interests were always very dominant in the group. We didn’t really have a leader, we’d always considered ourselves a Sonic Democracy. But as far as the balance between art rock and hardcore, I was pushing for that. And I didn’t find myself meeting any kind of resistance from the other members. I think everybody was just happy to be in this thing that was charging forward.

But yeah, we would play this radicalized music, and my finger could cut open at any given time. There’s three instances in the book where blood spurts from my finger while playing guitar. It’s been remarked upon by a few different writers, this bloody finger business. A lot of it had to do with how cheap the guitars were, and how their knobs were stripped off the stocks, so if you hit them with your thumb, you’re just going to cut it open. Especially if you’re double strumming like me, at hyper velocity speed.

I really had to learn how not to do that. On our first years of touring, the first couple of weeks were brutal because invariably my fingernail would get cut away. Then I’d start getting these blood pustules after playing in the same place every time, even after wrapping tape around my fingers to try and protect them. It got to the point where I developed a certain kind of plectrum picking style, that was all about saving my fingers from getting constantly brutalized. It’s now been 30 years since I cut my finger on the guitar, which seems ancient.

It’s not something I enjoyed doing, you know. I wasn’t trying to be Iggy or [Suicide’s] Alan Vega on stage, theatrically cutting myself. But it would happen, and it added a certain flavor to the gig I guess.

I bet if Iggy found out about it, he’d feel like he had to compete, and then you’d be one upping each other. Like that notorious Henry Rollins story.


That is a great story. Especially when he came out and kicked The Cure’s potted plants off the stage.

A moment ago you mentioned the dynamics in Sonic Youth. Did you get in touch with them to fact check parts of the book? Or for feedback?


I didn’t really talk to Kim at all about any of it. I mean, Kim had already written a book, and put her story down. But I don’t think she was ever very interested in this kind of archiving anyway, and I kind of knew that she wouldn’t have any documentation that I could really be reliant on. I didn’t know if Steve or Lee would either. But there were a couple of instances that I ran by Steve, because he has actually been administering our stuff on Bandcamp. If it weren’t for his diligence, none of our live music over the past eight years or so would have even come out. And it turns out Lee has a personal diary that actually tells you exactly what flight you were on going over to Europe for the first time. Which was great information. But I didn’t want to usurp his personal information. I would just ask, “Do you remember?” And that was very helpful.

I also spent a lot of time at the British Library, going through hard copies of the NME and Melody Maker. A lot of boots on the ground research. I wanted to create this archive of documentation, because I like that. And I could have almost written a book that was really anal retentive, listing every date that everything happened. But I actually took a lot of dates out, and just used phrasing like “on that summer.” Because, again, you can’t expect the casual reader to retain that data. But I might put that book together for the freaks like myself. Because those books exist. There’s a Sex Pistols book that goes into their day to day from ’74 onwards. It tells you what you need to go visit where Johnny Rotten got stabbed for “God Save the Queen” by people in the pub who were upset by that song, before detailing which car was driven by whom. And there’s a David Bowie day to day book too, that goes into his entire professional life. It’s totally painstaking, and slightly obtrusive. But I like that kind of forensic music history. So I needed to find a way of satisfying that urge, to some degree, with the Sonic Youth history that I’m telling, while realizing that’s a very select audience. So there’s a lot of things that aren’t in the book that I would have loved to include.

Like, I had a very close relationship with Epic Soundtracks, the drummer of Swell Maps and Immortal Souls and these other bands. He passed away really young. And I don’t talk about him at all in the book. In the narrative flow, it wouldn’t have done anything except appease my feelings.

Or: I was watching a documentary on the BBC about [pop artist] Keith Haring last night. And I write about the little interaction I had with Keith. But the documentary talked about this storefront that he opened up called The Pop Shop before he died. And it just so happens that The Pop Shop was in the ground floor of the building that Kim and I had lived in. I never mentioned that. In some ways, that’s kind of a cool thing to mention. But I’d forgotten. There are millions of trivial things that just aren’t there in the book. But I think there’s more than enough at this point.

You also leave out quite a few personal details. Especially compared to Kim’s book, which is more warts and all. After her book caused plenty of chatter about your breakup, was it difficult deciding how you would write your own memoir?


No, it was hardly reactionary. I knew that I didn’t want to write about my personal life. Because I figured, we’re all grown ups, so we can make our own decisions, in this respect. And writing about any of that would be kind of boorish. I thought it was nobody’s business, except for mine, hers and my daughter’s and my family’s. So at the end of the book, I write about how I have no interest in publicizing it or monetizing it. There’s only so much real estate in a book like that anyway. So I figured it would be kind of pithy to go into it in a few paragraphs. If I were to write something about it, I’d write a whole book.

I also don’t find any joy in it. You know, it’s a very personal situation, and I don’t find there’s anything to be gained from sharing it. It’s not that I mind reading that about other people—I love salient text. So it’s not for any moral reason. It’s for a personal reason. And there’s a lot of other things I would rather write about than that.

I also knew that it would be the first thing anybody would want to go towards when writing about the book. They’re expecting a she said, he said. But then, the realization that it’s muted in the book is pretty apparent. So that’s my answer to that.

(Sonic Life: A Memoir is out now via Doubleday.)

www.thurstonmoore.com

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