An Anthem In A Vacuum

When I first bought tickets to see Sonic Youth perform Daydream Nation in its entirety, I assumed it was going to be a one-off gig. Six months later and the band has just finished a three day residency at The Roundhouse, which itself was only a portion of a small world tour based on this record. On first learning about their plans to turn one gig into a full tour, I was disappointed. Somehow it made the event that I’d purchased tickets for so far in advance a bit less special. After seeing Friday night’s performance, however, and witnessing the energy in that room and the smiles on so many faces, I wish they could bring it to every city that has even a few people interested in seeing it.

I must have heard this record at least one or two hundred times since I bought its CD reissue in the early 90s. Most likely I have listened to it more than any other record in my collection, which is something I hadn’t thought about until Friday night. I probably own tens of thousands of records.

Strictly speaking numbers, yeah, it’s a bona fide classic: Pitchfork handed it top honours in their list of the best 100 albums of the 1980s while similar lists in Spin and Rolling Stone placed it quite high as well. This is odd for me. Most of what comprises critic’s canon can be found somewhere in the disorganised mess of albums on my shelves, but I don’t find myself listening to White Light/White Heat every other month, discovering new personal meaning each time.

With this record such a fundamental part of my musical DNA, I couldn’t miss this gig, yet a part of me dreaded it. It’s hard to sidestep the notion that All Tomorrow’s Parties’ Don’t Look Back series represents the museumification of pop music, something that could be performed perhaps by Kraftwerk’s robots. While that element is there on paper, the reality of the evening was much more alive than the rock-without-surprises of following a known track listing would imply.

Although almost fifty years old, Thurston’s still the eternal teenager. He probably always will be, too: tender and violent in unpredictable turns. The next day was Kim and his daughter’s thirteenth birthday. Sonic Youth has a teenager! I wonder when she’ll join the band.

Lee seemed genuinely exuberant throughout. Adding verses to his songs and improvising more than any of them, I think it might have been the first time I saw anyone smile whilst screaming. Steve’s drumming pounded through what is certainly some of the group’s most frenzied work, as Kim swayed and twirled at the centre of it all.

The final encore of “Schizophrenia”, the first song off Sister, made me want to shout for “Catholic Block” in the hopes they’d just play that record all the way through as well. If Sonic Youth had chosen to play a different complete album of theirs every night this week, I would have bankrupted myself buying tickets to each one.

Daydream Nation is like a photo-negative White Album. It is clearly the separate work of each artist but just as obviously a cohesive group effort. Maybe that’s just what it means to be a band at its peak: each individual voice can make itself heard whilst simultaneously playing off each other as part of one unified organism.

My experience of this album, of any album, is so rooted in intimate listens that you’d think it might be awkward sharing it with a large crowd, but that was the secret to the strength of the gig. The public experience didn’t ruin it, rather it was like the venue became everyone’s teenage bedroom complete with a cheap stereo and punk posters on the walls. Had we turned it up loud enough, a few decibels more would have sent salvation, or at least deliverance.

Image of Sonic Youth from the original Daydream Nation tour at Whisky-A-Go-Go, Los Angeles, California, 1989 taken from spiralstares’ Flickr photostream.