Growing up in Sonic Youth

Before the sold-out shows and painful splits, we were just kids in the East Village finding our sound and ourselves


Richard Edson
November 29, 2015 2:30AM (UTC)
This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.

The Weeklings Grey days, city days, crisp, icy cold, winter days, no money days, ramen noodle days, happy, sad, crazy days. Beautiful, timeless, musical nights, every night, all night, night after night, for weeks and months and even years. Every night we were doing our musical thing with so much energy, so much liveliness, and so much intelligence. There was music everywhere, in the clubs, the spaces; it was all over the city. It wouldn’t stop, it couldn’t stop. It was an explosion of music and culture. If you were up for it you let yourself feel the heat and the blast and let the pieces fall where they may.

Fresh faces everywhere, alive and young and full of ideas and hopes and dreams (with some cynical know-it-alls thrown into the mix, but who cared?). We just wanted to fuck it up, do something new, do something old in a new way, at decibels that scorched your eardrums. We were coming out of punk, ‘new wave’, but smarter…

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There was a performance space, A’s – because Arlene Schloss ran the place. It was a big, first floor loft on Broome Street (where Arlene lived). She’d have shows there and all night parties with bands and one-offs and comedians and word-poets and performance artists and whoever else was around who wanted to be part of the mix and part of the show. It was free and open and the quality of the acts varied, to say the least. There was a courtyard out back to hang out, smoke cigarettes and herb, and mix and match.

It was at A’s that I saw a band called The Coachmen. What distinguished them was that they had the tallest front line of any band I ever saw. Thurston (before I knew his name was Thurston) played guitar. He’s tall but he was the shortest dude in the band. Phoebe Legere also played at with her band at A’s. She was this gorgeous, WASP-y, upper class, blonde who’d dress up in outlandish outfits and flash her snatch at the audience. I guess it was avant-garde, but it was always good for a laugh and a look-see.

I lived upstairs from A’s in one of the other lofts with a crazy French cat named Charlie Dubriel. Arlene had heard me messing around on a bass with a drum machine, and she convinced me to put together a band called THE BUMBLEBEES. Even though I considered myself a drummer, I was freshly arrived in NYC via San Francisco and Boston, and I was without a drum set. I had appropriated my brother’s thrift store bass guitar from Boston, and had bought a Roland Dr. Rhythm drum machine. I was working out songs and grooves based around beats and bass lines and, hearing them, Arlene insisted that we could use those for a band that she was going to call THE BUMBLEBEES. Arlene had marginal musical talent and I was looking for real musicians to play with. She did have a crazy way with words and was friendly and persistent and I finally gave in as I wasn’t doing anything else at the time, but I insisted I’d be in charge of the tempos, the keys, the changes, everything. She agreed.

She knew a few people who were game to be in ‘our’ band. There was Florian the Austrian who played guitar and he could at least follow what I was doing. There was another guy who’d noodle around on another guitar. He’s now living in Los Angeles doing publicity for obscure films. He was a sweet guy (and still is) and living out a fantasy, I suppose, of being in a band. I was on bass and rhythm machine. Finally, there was Arlene on the microphone doing her crazy thing with words and vocal sounds. We worked up a mini set of six or seven songs and then we played (conveniently enough) at one of the party nights at A’s.

We did a song based on the William Blake poem, “The Tyger” (“Tiger tiger burning bright, in the forests of the night”). While we played these two chicks came out and removed all their clothes and painted themselves with black and yellow stripes to make them look, I suppose, like tigers. I thought it was corny but they were cute and I didn’t mind watching them take off their clothes. One was a Chinese/Jewish girl who was Florian the Austrian’s girlfriend. Her name was Judith Wong and she was a dancer who would later become my girlfriend after she broke up with Florian. She lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side. Her bed was in a little nook next to a window looking out into the courtyard. One hot, sticky, New York summer night we were drifting off to sleep and I heard someone on the window ledge. I looked up and saw him climbing through the window. I got up to stop him and we started wrestling and fighting. Then Judith was slapping me in the face and yelling, “What’s the matter? What’s the matter?” I woke up and realized it was all a nightmare. Once I calmed down I knew Judith and I would never last and it was true, we didn’t. I wonder what ever happened to her.

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The other girl who took off her clothes and painted herself like a tiger was a “performance artist”. She was a good friend of Arlene’s and, after hearing us do “The Tyger,” she had the inspiration to do the stripping and painting thing. I don’t remember her name, but she was a sweet, cute and upbeat girl, and she walked with a limp. It was because she had a progressive disease that made one of her legs shorter than the other and, strangely enough, it was going to keep getting shorter and shorter. We never talked about it but I couldn’t help wondering about her shortening leg. Would it keep getting shorter and shorter until it just withered away? I never found out.

The high point of the Bumblebees came when we did a public access cable TV show (this was in 1981). It was our third and final gig. The studio was small, drafty and cold. There were one or two cheap little video cameras, and a hairy pot smoking, beer drinking pretentious host. The whole thing seemed cheap and sordid, and I felt sorry for the girls for having to take their clothes in such a cold and drafty place. They didn’t seem to mind, though. But that was it for me. I just didn’t see much future in it.

At the time I wanted to play things experimental and heavy and funky and grooving and jazzy and improvisational and tight. I was looking for like-minded people to bring these things together. This was when James White and the Blacks, the Lounge Lizards with John Lurie, MATERIAL with Bill Laswell were doing their funky, jazzy, beat-driven, semi-improvised thing in Lower Manhattan, so I knew there were people interested in this kind of thing, I just didn’t know who they were and where I was going to meet them. The first order of business was to get a drum kit and a place to play it. I found a nice, vintage set and bought it. Fortuitously, I ran into a bass player named Perkins Barnes (who would later become the first bass player in my other band, KONK). He had a rehearsal studio in the basement of a tenement on 2nd Ave between 4th and 5th street. It was damp and moldy with a tiny frosted window that you couldn’t see out. It was next to a big, black, hulking boiler and we paid fifty dollars apiece for its use. I put my drums in there and practiced my butt off. It was a tiny dungeon of a place, but it was warm and righteous.

~

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I’m not sure when I first met Thurston Moore. I knew him by sight as the shortest member of the Coachmen’s front line, and also knew him because we played (myself on trumpet) in one of Glenn Branca’s massive orchestrated, improvised symphonies. All I remember was that at some point Thurston asked me to play drums in a band he was putting together. He said he had seen me play (at A’s no less) with another band, BODY. It was to be Thurston on guitar, Kim, his girlfriend, on bass, and Anne on keyboards. Anne was an artist of one sort or another and had a boyfriend who was a world famous conceptual artist named Vito Acconce. I was impressed because I didn’t know many world famous artists, especially one as obscurely famous as Vito. He would come to our gigs and just sit and never say a word, even when we went out for food or drinks, so he was kind of a drag. Anne was young, blond, sweet and pretty. She played these odd chords and arpeggios on her synths, Kim would pluck booming bass notes, as Thurston would strum on his guitar until he transported himself into another world.

The first time we got together –Thurston, Kim, Anne and I – it was down in the basement studio. They came in, set up, and started playing with a balls-to-the-wall, all-out, take-no-prisoners attitude, especially Thurston. I thought they were a little nuts, but what the hell? They were committed rock n’ rollers and enjoying themselves, so I joined right in. We went at it for I don’t know how long. It was a blast, but I wondered how long we were going to keep it up. I looked at Thurston. He was in another zone. Then I saw these mysterious, little, dark spots appearing on my bass drum. I kept bashing away but I couldn’t help wondering what they were. I looked around and up at the ceiling but couldn’t find the source anywhere. Then I noticed blood on Thurston’s strumming hand, and his beat-up guitar was missing one of the volume or tone knobs. There was a little piece of metal sticking up in its place. Apparently the piece of metal was cutting into Thurston’s strumming hand and making him bleed, and this was the cause of these mysterious little dark spots. Pounding away, I thought, this is either the most committed or pretentious guitar in downtown, and probably both. He didn’t seem to know what was happening, or he just didn’t care. I didn’t care either, but I did care that he was getting blood on my drum set. I kept playing and he kept spraying until I finally just stopped and they looked at me like, what’s the matter? I said something like, look, man, you’re bleeding. And he looked at his hand like, wow, look at that, and I said, that’s cool and all, but just don’t bleed on my fucking drums. It wasn’t like I was angry or anything, I just didn’t want his blood on my drums, and he said, oh, yeah, sorry dude. Then he turned the other way and started playing again. The rest of us joined right in. We rocked the basement for I don’t know how long and the only conclusion I can make from this is that Thurston has been rocking the joint and bleeding for music ever since. Afterwards they asked me to join the band. I said yes, even though I was playing in two other bands. They said it was no problem at all.

Sometimes Thurston would play bass and Kim would play guitar. I really liked Thurston’s bass playing because he would come up with these real asymmetrical and rocking bass lines. It was fun to play drums against them. I would encourage him to play more bass but he’d just smile, shrug and not say anything. What could I do? If he didn’t want to play bass he wouldn’t play bass. I’d drop it until the next time, and he’d give me the same shrug and smile. I dropped it.

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I don’t know how many gigs we played with that original line up. Maybe three or four in all. We’d rehearse in my dingy, moldy little basement room, which had at least one thing going for it. It was warm in the winters because of that big black boiler, and cool in the summers, because we were underground and away from the sun and the heat.

One day I showed up for practice and there was this other guy there. His name was Lee. Lee Renaldo. He was replacing Anne. I took it in stride. Why not? Anne wasn’t that committed, and I was only the drummer, also not that committed. I was playing in two other bands. My business was to show up and play my butt off, then maybe put in my two cents. Though we never discussed it, I think Kim and Thurston understood how I felt. So when Lee showed up, we were introduced, shook hands, and then we played. It was different. Louder, for sure. Two guitars searching for a beautiful racket. A wash of sound. Cool. And fairly quickly a sound emerged and SONIC YOUTH started jelling, rocking and finding its true identity.

Lee lived in Soho and had access to a rehearsal studio just south of Houston on Broadway. It had a full compliment of industrial strength amps and a monster PA. Thurston, Kim and Lee were in pig heaven. I wasn’t, but I’ll get to that later. The rehearsal studio was in one of those office/loft buildings that were being converted to artist spaces (this was before every city in the world started converting their spare industrial/warehouse spaces for artists). At first I suspected the only reason Lee was in the band was because of the rehearsal studio and it’s industrial strength amplifiers, but it soon became apparent that he and Thurston had a thing going that would became the signature sound of SONIC YOUTH.

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I thought that Lee and his Soho buddies were financially better off than my East Village friends and therefore less authentic (in other words, they were being supported by mom and dad. I never checked this out, but it just seemed that way). Also, the Soho crowd was less cool, brainier, and a lot whiter and careerist. At the time we (the cool, multi-racial kids in the East Village) felt superior to our counterparts in Soho, hence there was an underlying tension between the music and art worlds of Soho and the East Village. We were poorer but realer. We were in it for fun and community, not status, ‘art’, and fame. We saw them as interlopers and Johnny-come-lately’s jumping on a train that had already left the station. This was all a little simplistic and self-serving but there it was. The tension between the East Village and Soho wouldn’t be eliminated until the ascendancy of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a quintessential East Village kid who straddled the divide a few years later.

Like I said, Thurston, Lee and Kim were in pig heaven in our new rehearsal space. They’d strum away to their hearts’ content at ear splitting volume but I was stuck behind an un-miked drum set playing until my ears were bleeding and my arms were ready to fall off. When I’d had enough I’d stop and insist that they not only to turn it down, but that we’d put the jams into some kind of structure so that we’d have some unified goals. At least that way we’d know where we were going. They’d kind of shrug and kind of accede to my demands. I’d like to think that my demands (at least the structuring part) had some kind of influence on the way they understand and make music. Maybe it did, and then again, maybe it didn’t.

At the time I was playing with SONIC YOUTH, I was also playing with another band, KONK, and truth be told, KONK was closer to my heart. KONK, which was started before SONIC YOUTH (and not so coincidently played it’s first gig at the aforementioned A’s), was a funky-groovelectic-Afro-Latin dance and party band (like our other brother and sister bands in New York, LIQUID LIQUID, ESG, KID CREOLE and the COCONUTS, MATERIAL, and in England, THE POP GROUP, A CERTAIN RATIO and especially PIGBAG). This was at the time when Hip-Hop and Rap were first leaving the projects of the South Bronx and coming downtown. It was at downtown institution,The Mudd Club that I first heard it. I found it instantly mesmerizing, mostly because of the way it fore- grounded the beat and bass line. I also heard Go-Go at the Mudd Club, Washington D.C.’s incredible dance music. KONK was certainly not Hip-Hop or Go-Go, though we were, I liked to think, drawing on similar rhythmic and party oriented ideas that had nothing to do with SONIC YOUTH. Still, I was very comfortable playing these two diametrically opposed though rhythmically and sonically forceful musics, but I knew that someday I might have to choose between one or the other, and since, like I said, my heart was closer to the multi-racial-groovlectisism of KONK, I knew that if I had to choose, KONK would be it.

When the seminal downtown club DANCERTERIA opened, SONIC YOUTH played the first weekend and KONK the second, so both bands were doing equally well in their respective musical communities. I liked the open ended-ness of SONIC YOUTH’s experimentation and anything-goes attitude. As long as we rocked the world we could experiment to our hearts’ content. We could even get into other, softer, sonically expansive spaces. I suppose the combination of these two things laid down the template for SONIC YOUTH’s entire repertoire.

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After a number of rehearsals and gigs with Lee we stopped rehearsing because we realized we could actually do our rehearsing onstage, or that there was really no difference between our rehearsals and our gigs. This was cool by me, especially because I didn’t have to have my ears shredded in that rehearsal space. Kim would encourage me to wear baseball hats when we played out because she said it made me look like a heavy metal drummer, and since we weren’t playing heavy metal, it made it cool, or something. I never really understood the way Kim’s mind worked anyway, but since I naturally wore them, I’d sometimes wear them to a gig, just to make her happy. At the time I liked to wear baseball caps because they were quintessentially American. We were all post-punk-self-aware-artists, which means we were extremely conscious of everything, and it was an ironic gesture, or statement, or something like that, because, believe it or not, no one was wearing baseball caps at that time (’81-’82), except baseball players and, if Kim was to be believed, heavy metal drummers. I also wore them because I look good in hats.

We played a gig at a gallery called White Columns as part of a two or three day music and art event called “The Noise Fest.” Thurston, showing the organizational skills that serve him well to this day, had a hand in putting it together. The owner of the gallery, and the sponsor of the festival, was a rich kid with deep pockets and somehow came up with the idea of starting a record label. It was to be called Neutral Records. I have no idea why. He asked us, SONIC YOUTH, to be the first band to record for it. He was also going to release the soundtrack to VORTEX (which I had a hand in writing), the underground-noir-thriller directed by Scott & Beth B., staring Lydia Lunch and Jimmy Russo.

It was winter in New York when we recorded. A freezing cold February, if I remember correctly. We were recording at the studio in Rockefeller Center, the very one that the Rockefeller’s built for Toscanini and his NBC orchestra. We were going to record there because somebody knew somebody who was an engineer or something and had access to the studio. I didn’t ask questions. I was just happy to record. It was a beautiful, cavernous place, and we had three days (or two? or four?) to record and, coming off a couple of gigs, we were ready and raring to go.

We set up, the engineers miked the amps and drum set, fixed the levels, and we were off. Two, maybe three takes of any one song. We’d listen, and then move on. It was as relaxed and as unpressured as possible, and over before we knew it. I know we didn’t take it too seriously. We were just making an album, and so what? It was nothing more than documenting what we did and what we were doing. If I remember right, we were so ready and loose that we ended up with some extra time to record, so we experimented with a few things and those experiments found their way onto the album. We’d get lyrics by using the William Boroughs method of cutting up words from a newspaper article or randomly picking words and phrases out of anything printed that was lying around the studio. We’d also do things like throwing metal bars on the floor to get some random percussive, metallic sounds.

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The whole thing was fast and furious. We’d start in the afternoon and end at night. When we’d leave it was windy and frigid but it didn’t even feel that cold. We didn’t talk about anything, but we knew we had accomplished what we had set out to do. It felt good. The last night recording was much longer than anticipated which was bad because I had a KONK gig at a party downtown. When I finally showed up the KONK boys gave me hard and stony stares. I realized, ironically enough, that it was time to make a decision, KONK or SONIC YOUTH.

Making the SONIC YOUTH record was a summation and culmination of my time with the band. It seemed like there was nothing more to accomplish and, with the growing demands on my time with KONK, I told them of my decision to leave. They were sad but understanding, but then I don’t really know about the sad part. We played one more gig, fittingly enough, at the MUDD CLUB. It was my swan song and easily the best show we ever did. We never played as well or as loosely yet with so much power and feeling. When it was over I was soaked in sweat and limped to the dressing room to bask in the glory of the sound we had made and had unleashed on the poor, unsuspecting audience. The only down point was that a founding member of KONK had come to see the show and afterwards, in the dressing room, had whispered in my ear, these people are squares. True or not, it is clear that SONIC YOUTH stood the test of time and I am proud to have been part of it.


Richard Edson

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East Village John Lurie Sonic Youth The Weeklings

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