Review: Enthusiasm emerges in rock recollections

SONIC LIFE, Thurston Moore, Faber & Faber
SONIC LIFE, Thurston Moore, Faber & Faber
Thurston Moore, co-founder of US so-hip-it-hurts band Sonic Youth, would be ashamed of me.

The man so attuned to the zeitgeist that he was there, or very near to, so many emerging music scenes, would shake his head that I only found out about his genre-bending, taste-changing ensemble once they released their third album, Evol, in 1986.

In my defence though, like Thurston I grew up in the depths of leafy suburbia, and it takes a while for radical sounds to make it to Connecticut (him) or Tawa (me). And he had New York a couple of hours drive away to experience it all, whereas downtown Wellington had to wait for the bands Sonic Youth influenced — let alone SY themselves — to grace our streets.

But Thurston would like the way I discovered Sonic Youth, by spinning StarpowerEvol’s one and only single, as a campus radio DJ when a sharp-eared programme director had put it on the playlist. It sounded like little else we were playing — and still does, despite plenty of imitators — and sparked a life-long love of what Moore, Kim Gordon, Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo were up to.

Hence, it is a challenge to be objective about Sonic Life: this book was squarely destined for bookshelves like mine, where it can spar with ex-wife Gordon’s more acerbic take.

Moore’s memoir is mostly about how Sonic Youth made it, if you count a single one of their 16 albums scraping briefly into the US Top 20 as making it. For three-quarters of it he is either commuting from Connecticut to New York, wishing he could live there, or having finally moved there, barely making ends meet.

Moore, if not entirely enthusiastic about the glamorous cliche of the starving artist at his hungriest moments, is certainly happiest when wallowing in his youth, adding full weight to one of his main themes, of never having entirely grown up. His retains boyish enthusiasm for the outlandish sounds he was listening to and making, and it is infectious.

In fact, you get the sense that he almost feels it was all downhill from there once Sonic Youth signed to Geffen and got caught up in the hype surrounding close friends Nirvana — a cautionary tale if ever there was one, but one which it feels like Moore is keeping some details from in reserve.

Those years only get a few chapters and, likewise, the end of his band and his marriage are skipped over quickly, lest anyone be hurt in the process, no doubt.

At its heart, this is a tale of being in love with hearing that wild, wild music and having a life changed by rock ’n roll.


Mike Houlahan is the ODT political editor and a former music writer who has seen Sonic Youth live three times.