Better Living through Feedback: Sonic Youth destroys Tipitina’s

This is a concert review I wrote for a one-shot fanzine my friend edited. I’ve always liked it because it balances critical commentary and personal observation. It’s also one of the first critiques I ever wrote that I was proud of, and careful readers will see the origin of this blog’s name. God, I wish Arundhati Roy would go back to writing novels…

3 August 2002, New Orleans, LA. Tipitina’s Uptown.

The air’s so murky and sweltering that I don’t know where the sweat on my body ends and the cigarette smoke begins. My eyes sting, which would matter more if I was tall enough to actually see over the shoulders of the other 500 people in the room. As it is, I occasionally catch strobe-light-esque flashes of the stage between craning necks and whipping hair. Mostly, though, I’m searching in the dark for a curly-haired, dorky-bifocals-ensconced sexy girl who I’ve just met but somehow feel the need to keep an eye on and to protect. So, my testosterone level and inner macho are both peaking, and my feet ache from following her as she weaves her way closer to the stage. I’m constantly finding and losing sight of her in this surge of sweaty bodies, and she’s absolutely silent, so even echolocation doesn’t help. In The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy describes a character as being “a quiet bubble floating on a sea of noise,” and that seems an apt metaphor for the situation.

And, god almighty, it is a sea of noise. The band onstage is Sonic Youth and, while it’s not as young as it once was, it’s as motherfucking sonic as the day it was born. It turns out Amanda is trying to find a spot where people aren’t chatting drunkenly above the music. Though it’s technically impossible for anything short of a typhoon to be above the fuzz-crunch and percussive pummeling of New York’s favorite noise-rockers, I understand exactly what she means.

Because the music, a frenzy of feedback and barely controlled mayhem, is worth hearing uninterrupted. It’s propulsive and gorgeous, and this is completely surprising to me. Sonic Youth has always frustrated and bored me. At various times, I’ve owned Daydream Nation, Dirty, and the Made in U.S.A. soundtrack, but each album felt like experimental fragments in search of song structures. The musical elements zip along noisily, but never seemed to jell into cohesive songs. All three albums are lying in some used-CD bin and, from them, I can only remember the names of a few songs.

Fortunately, Sonic Youth plays precisely the songs I recognize at the concert. Throughout the 90 minutes of chaos and crackerjack rhythms, I glimpse the parts of the band that I actually enjoyed—a crisp and startling “Bull in the Heather” (from Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star); a ferocious “Teenage Riot”; an encore of “Drunken Butterfly,” with Kim Gordon’s impassioned cry of “I love you! I love you! I love you! What’s your name?” tearing through the crowd.

These recognizable pieces bob to the surface amid a set that is otherwise completely new to me. I dive right in, cheering and bobbing my head like a fan. My favorite of the evening, “Rain On Tin,” slides restlessly through several movements before settling into a churning motion that builds in beauty and intensity, until I think it’ll collapse under its own fury. With the exception of the lackluster near-ballad “Disconnection Notice,” however, Sonic Youth’s songs run to the edge of the stage and skid to a stop, arms flailing and toes wiggling in the air, just in time to avoid the fall.

Moments of pure beauty float above the surging soundscape—a fuzzy bass line that sounds like someone skipping through a city park; a guitar squall that becomes a clean, pristine melody; Lee Renaldo’s bracing, slightly whiny voice during the one song he gets to sing; Thurston Moore swinging his guitar above him during the “Bull in the Heather” riff, like he’s stabbing licks from the air above his shaggy hair. The songs are focused and have direction, and the solos are brilliantly structured around dissonance and violent melodies.

And then there’s bassist Kim Gordon. When I’m not scanning the crowd for Amanda, I’m peeking at Gordon. She’s jumping, yelling, breathing huskily, flailing, headbanging, and shimmying. She’s the hottest fortysomething in New Orleans and she wields her simmering sex appeal like a stiletto. Since Jim O’Rourke occasionally takes over bass-playing duties, Gordon is free to act out her Hong Kong action flick fantasies onstage, looking like she’s barely containing an epileptic seizure. Despite all this, she—along with drummer Steve Shelley—holds the songs together, keeping them from fraying at the edges. She’s the crashing wave and the tide wall all at once. For an hour and a half, Gordon and company are never more than a half-step from plunging into oblivion, but pop up, gasping for breath, just in time.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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