Brave men run away from me.

Sonic Youth have been around for a very long time now, and the critical discussion around them as an important influence on the modern alternative rock world has coalesced around a few of the most influential moments in their career. Daydream Nation, of course, and Dirty, Murray Street maybe, definitely "The Diamond Sea." The unfortunate corollary to this fact is that huge swaths of their career are rarely discussed anymore. Amongst my friends, I notice that even the diehard fans only have a few of their records. And maybe it's my completist streak that's unhealthy and not their ability to get by with only three records by their favorite band, but either way it makes it hard for me to have quality discussions of the Sonic Youth album that has stuck with me the most over the last few years. No one I know has ever heard Bad Moon Rising.

But I want to talk about Bad Moon Rising here now, because I'm going through yet another one of my phases in which I play it every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and the more I play it, the deeper it pulls me in. There's so much in this record, I almost don't even see it as just a record anymore. It's like a 3D movie if 3D actually did what it's supposed to do: put you right in the middle of the movie, like it's not happening in front of you but all around you. That's how Bad Moon Rising makes me feel. I put it on and sink into a huge, surrounding atmosphere. Bad Moon Rising is structured like one continuous fever-dream reverie, a huge floating universe in the space between chords, a swirling vortex of alienation and horror and glorious transcendence, sending the listener flying through disparate emotions in close proximity, sometimes delivering all of them at the same time and leaving you to sort out how you actually feel. The band intended it to be an American travelogue of sorts, taking the name from Creedence Clearwater Revival's 1969 slice of hoodoo rock n' roll Americana and inspiration for the album's most famous song from the Charles Manson murders that the Creedence song seemed to predict. Anything you read about this record will tell you in detail about its attempt to reflect the dark side of middle American culture.

The reason Bad Moon Rising has stuck with me for so long, though, is not so much because of the resonance of its intended subject matter as because I have found a more personal meaning in its collection of songs, one that might not be borne out by the intended subject matter but is present in the music regardless. There are plenty of records out there designed for the listener who is questioning their place in the universe. Bad Moon Rising is not that. Bad Moon Rising comes from a place where the realization that there is no place where you will fit in has long since passed.

I'm writing this post on Valentine's Day, which I will spend alone, as I have for years. Valentine's Day ends a season that I sometimes think of as "the suicide holidays," and though I have obviously not yet killed myself I imagine that if I'm ever to do so it will happen sometime during this part of the year. When it's cold outside I already have trouble with depression, as the cold makes me want to stay in the house, and staying in the house makes me feel more alienated than I already do on a day to day basis. But then there's Christmas, and really the entire period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the huge consumer-culture push that focuses on familial connections in order to inspire cash outlays. I was working in a mall for that period of this year, so I couldn't escape it. I worked at a kiosk outside a jewelry store and a lingerie store, which collaborated to remind me daily that there was no romantic love in my life. I spent as little time at my parents' house over the actual Christmas holiday as I could, but I really can't be around my family at all without constant forcible reminders of our dysfunction, our inability to relate to each other. And then there was New Year's Eve, a time for drinking and celebrating the end of a year, which always seems so perverse to me. The end of a year just reminds me of all of the goals I set for myself and didn't meet. And then my birthday comes towards the end of January to reinforce that reminder all over again. Another year older, and what do I have to show for it? Time to accomplish things grows ever shorter. Finally, there's Valentine's Day, which reminds me once again that there is no romantic love in my life, this time twisting the knife a little bit with all of the visions of happy couples I must endure. I guess the fact that I'm writing this means I ran the gauntlet for another year, which is a worthy accomplishment, but makes me feel no less alienated from the world around me.

Bad Moon Rising begins with "Brave Men Run," and although that song is preceded by a short "Intro" that is labeled as a separate track, it's really just the beginning of that song. "Brave Men Run" begins with layered guitars playing interlocking chiming melodies, and when the drums and bass come in after a short pause, the entire band plays a midtempo riff that spirals upward gloriously, sounding like the basis for a gorgeous heavy-guitar pop song. However, just at the climactic moment, Thurston Moore loses the melodic thread completely, beginning to saw at his guitar strings wildly and causing the entire riff to derail. It plunges downward into an ambient bridge, and as Thurston and Lee Ranaldo pick out occasional disconnected melody lines, the bass and drums carry the song out into what feels like open space, aurally speaking, removing any riff-centric basis for the song and leaving a wide ambient area for Kim Gordon to deliver her vocals. It's only when this point is reached that she begins singing, and while the words escalate, bringing the song to a climactic point in which Kim howls its title, then expounds on the phrase: "...in my family, ...into the setting sun, ...into captivity..." Thurston and Lee are still playing their guitars behind her, but what they're playing has nothing to do with rhythm or melody or riff or anything--it's all just disconnected notes, accents as textures, with the bass and drums still carrying the rhythm of the song as they have throughout the vocal section. Finally, even the drums stop, and as Kim continues to play the first few notes of the bass riff, she whispers, "Brave men run away from me."

The entire song fades out here, but not into silence; instead, it disappears into a tape loop of the locked groove that ends side four of Lou Reed's guitar feedback symphony, Metal Machine Music. An album seen by many as directionless noise, I've always found Metal Machine Music to be beautiful, and I know I've come upon a kindred spirit when I run into someone who agrees. It makes me think that Thurston Moore and I would have some things to talk about if we ever met (which we never will). The origin of the Metal Machine Music tape loop's appearance on Bad Moon Rising was an onstage dilemma faced by Sonic Youth in their early days of being too poor to buy multiple guitars. They used different tunings for every song, and needed things to keep their live audiences occupied (and drown out hecklers) during the lengthy tuning breaks between songs. The tape loops ended up on the album, and indeed, "Society Is A Hole" seems to take its rhythmic basis more from the oscillating Lou Reed guitar feedback than from anything the band is actually playing. Because of that, the song starts before "Brave Men Run" really ends, and everything played by an actual member of the band during the song seems more like an accent added onto that basic foundation of looping noise.

"Society is a hole," Thurston sings, making his own alienation into a pun that works precisely because no attention is ever called to it. Bad Moon Rising doesn't always provide lyrical backing for my repurposing it as the soundtrack to my alienation, but on this song, it does so in spades. That said, I can't do much rational explication for lines like "You got big big hair and everybody's scared," or "My friends are girls wrapped in boys." You either know what those things mean or you don't, I'd say. Thurston intones all of these lines in a mournful monotone, sounding almost like the old hillbilly singers of the early 20th century, only without even a semblance of melody to guide his voice. It's as if a nightmare version of the Singing Brakeman Jimmie Rodgers only had the clanging rattle of the train's wheels to sing with, and had to stay with the same note all the time or risk going off-key. When Thurston isn't singing, the tape loop underneath Bob Bert's tapping cymbals and Kim Gordon's three-note bassline slides into the front of the mix, going against the grain of the song's actual tempo with its repetitive one-two rumbles and hums, sounding like train wheels clacking over tracks in super-slow motion.

The song ends when this tape loop is submerged under a horrible recording of "Not Right" by the Stooges, taped from a record player that seems to skip at least every third revolution, and making a three-minute song go by in less than a minute. As I said, it sounds horrible; the strums of the guitar distort into chopping scratches, and the beat is entirely inaudible. For young fans in the mid-80s who'd never heard the Stooges, it must have been impossible to figure out what this even was. But then, you could say that about the entire album.

The totally fucked incidental-music version of "Not Right" soon fades into a sound that I first thought were church bells. It soon becomes clear, though, that these are the dulcet strains of "I Love Her All The Time," its guitar riffs all consisting of shaking, rattling guitar strings and scraping atonal sounds. I don't know that this song is played entirely by beating on guitars with drumsticks and shaking them in front of amps that are feeding back, but if there are any actual strummed, chorded guitar parts, I don't hear them. Instead, there is Kim Gordon's two-note bassline, that moves from a note identical to the ones the guitars are spitting through feedback to a lower note that sounds sick, as if its ever-so-slightly out of key. It may be, since Kim Gordon has always played her bass in standard tuning, no matter what kind of weird tunings Thurston and Lee come up with for their parts of any given song. This note might be the closest she can get to an on-key note. It works for the song, though, as it is but one of several elements that make "I Love Her All The Time," however sincerely it was written (and I assume it was a sincere love song from Thurston to Kim, as the two of them got married around the time it was recorded), seem like a fucked-up parody of a love song. As ambiently constructed as "Society Is A Hole," "I Love Her All The Time" has even less of a foundation to build on, lacking even a tape loop to pull the whole thing together. The guitars ring like bells, scrape like wrecked cars on cement barriers, groan like dying dogs, but never create any sort of melody. Thurston's vocal doesn't pick up that slack, either. He's at least gasping in two different notes on this song--notes which, by the way, oppose rather than harmonize with the two notes Kim is playing on bass--but there's still more atonality to his singing than anything. Then halfway through the song, the whole thing implodes like a punch to the gut. Kim starts playing much lower notes, Thurston and Lee go into full-on feedback mode, and Bob Bert pounds his floor toms with abandon. If you're playing the record loud (and I always am), it feels like your entire apartment is shaking, like your speakers will drop through the floor into your downstairs neighbor's place if the pounding doesn't stop soon. It does stop--too soon, in fact, because if I'm listening to this record I'm probably praying for destruction--but that gut-churning middle section gives the lie to any conception of "I Love Her All The Time" as nothing more than a sincere love song. As does the end of the song, for that matter, as the drums during the final verse become nothing more than random crashes on a cymbal here or there before stopping completely, along with the bassline and any semblance of song form, at the end of that verse. There's still at least another minute of the song left, though, and it's all just sick, bent, grinding feedback. The guitars don't sound like they're in love; they sound nauseated.

Side two begins with "Ghost Bitch," which, like "Society Is A Hole," constructs its rhythm around noises that remind me of a train. Sonic Youth are the sort of band to sample the sounds of a train, and in fact did so on their next album, Evol, forming half of the song "Secret Girl" around a recording of a train going down a track. "Ghost Bitch" doesn't have clickety-clack noises, though--instead, a repetitive feedback howl that occurs at the top of every measure for the first half of the song sounds exactly like the horn of a train bearing down on a car that has stalled out on railroad tracks. It repeats for several minutes, but it's impossible to get used to. It sounds frightening. When I'm playing this album loud (and I always am), I feel like I need to move out of the way of something. But then, I react to a lot of stimuli in that way. I jump at shadows and irrationally fear strangers and dark places I haven't been in before. "Ghost Bitch" functions like a horror movie for me, allowing me to work through my issues with fear in a safe environment where I know I'm not really in any danger. It's not the only song on Bad Moon Rising that has this function for me. I play it louder and louder, just like I watch scarier and scarier horror movies, always pushing my limits, seeing how much I can stand before I have to stop. And then I'll try again later.

"Ghost Bitch" isn't really scary until halfway through, though. The train-coming noises are tough, as are Kim's muttered lyrics, in which she spools out ominous imagery: "Locking arms side by side, crouch down before the fire's light." But then, after the first verse, the song finally kicks all the way in, with Bob pounding on his toms and Kim yelling: "I still remember their savage cries... faces painted in joyous fright!" Thurston and Lee increase the intensity of their feedback, no longer stopping and starting the train noise but carrying it on constantly in the right speaker as the other guitar scrapes and screeches in the left. Under it all, Kim's bass rumbles, playing no intelligible notes but instead a dark bed of sound that deepens the horrific feel the song creates. "You're the first day of my life!" she screams at the end of the verse, and everything cuts out except feedback, which spirals upwards and seems like an ending until Bob Bert, who'd leave the band after this album to play a drumkit consisting mostly of pieces of metal in Pussy Galore, pounds on a piece of sheet metal and a floor tom and is echoed by strikes against guitar strings that reverberate with the metal sounds so completely that it's impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. This outburst also trails off into spiraling feedback, which is chopped off without warning in favor of pounding toms and a background loop of church bells.

Thus begins "I'm Insane," a roundabout personal manifesto driven by repetition. Drums thud, guitars saw on staccato chords, the bassline mostly consists of one note repeated over and over (sometimes replaced by a higher octave of the same note). Atop it all, Thurston recites a poetic lyric consisting of foreboding, disconnected images. Beneath it all, the church bells, ringing at the edge of hearing, usually inaudible but always texturally present. "A steaming swamp. A troubled heart. The sky is red. I can't stop running." Thurston's lyric has a narrative quality to it, but doesn't go anyplace that you could plot out on a map. Instead, it escalates along with the music, carrying its repetition toward a climax that never quite arrives, building up and then building down, all without ever really changing. "I'm Insane" distinguishes itself from the majority of Bad Moon Rising by creating the same sort of hovering, spacious feel that is common to most of the album, but without leaving much of any space between its instruments. The mix for this song is thick, but the repetition of the song's construction opens up a different space inside the head of the listener, seeming to go on forever even as it ends after only four minutes.

If "I'm Insane" goes on forever, "Justice Is Might" never seems to start. Flowing naturally from what remains when most of the instruments in "I'm Insane" have trailed off to a stop, "Justice Is Might" builds up around a loop of feedback that works the same as the Metal Machine Music loop worked in "Society Is A Hole," although I'm pretty sure it's a loop created by Sonic Youth themselves, not one cribbed from another record. Over that loop, Thurston, speaking through distortion effects, announces the song as if he's a hardcore frontman explaining the political content of the song the band is about to play. As a veteran of the hardcore scene, I know all about these introductions, which sometimes stretch on a good bit longer than the actual songs they introduce. And sometimes they're incoherent, too, though never quite as incoherent as Thurston's translated introduction is revealed to be. "This song is called 'Justice Is Might,' it's about sonic life," he stammers out, before going on to explain that "you have a genius and a sex maniac living together taking lots of drugs and fucking all day, and it's just like... staying at home and risking your life." This introduction is the first two minutes of this four-minute track, and what follows it might just be Sonic Youth's version of a one-minute hardcore song. As Bob plays a rumbling beat on his toms, Lee and Thurston chop out what might be a two-chord riff if it originated in an insane asylum on Venus. "I know it's wrong, but that is all right," Thurston declaims. "As long as it's strong, it's just that it might." He repeats the song's title twice, and then it's over. But not really, as now we get another minute and a half of trailing feedback over which he continues to repeat the song's title through the same distortion he used to introduce it. "Justice Is Might" feels like the auditory version of watching a hardcore show through the eyes of Pablo Picasso. This is the reflection of a very unique, some might say twisted, perspective, applied to the hardcore scene. And yet it comes from Thurston Moore, who did time in the NY hardcore band Even Worse before forming Sonic Youth and has played guitar in recent reunions of Negative Approach, the member of the band who most appreciated what hardcore had to offer on its own terms, as a musical form and a culture. And yet, how can it seem weird to me, a fellow hardcore veteran who finds the whole thing both brilliant and absurd, inviting and alienating? I understand exactly what he means. In fact, the song's title is most easily understood to mean "might makes right," but because I was looking for puns and double-meanings after seeing the title "Society Is A Hole" on Bad Moon Rising's back cover, I read the word might as synonymous with "may be" for years. It seems like Thurston might intend this too, as the lyric "It's just that it might" recasts the word in the same meaning, and also thereby influences the reading of the title. Maybe it's all a reference to the way the hardcore scene carries itself as if it knows all the answers to all of society's problems, but never is able to solve the problems that exist within it.

The conclusion of this album is its climactic moment, and "Death Valley 69" stands apart from almost everything that has come before, as it forsakes the floating atmosphere of the rest of Bad Moon Rising in favor of a simple, pounding riff that separates itself from hardcore or metal only by the stop-start cadence with which Sonic Youth plays it. Instead of flowing out of the song that has come before, "Death Valley 69" follows the only stretch of silence on the whole album (other than the side division), Bob Bert kicking things off with a stick-clicking four count and the whole band slamming into the riff like they're trying to kill their guitars. "Death Valley 69"'s riff-based construction is the mirror image of the album's beginning, "Brave Men Run" opening with a solid riff just as pretty and upbeat as "Death Valley 69" is ugly and dark. The entire band works together to pound the already memorable two-chord riff into your brain so deeply that it can never be dislodged. While they do so, Thurston sings the song's frightening lyrics from the point of view of Charles Manson. "Coming down," he yells. "Sadie, I love it." The verse is followed by a careening instrumental chorus, and then even "Death Valley 69" has an ambient breakdown, on which Thurston and Lee's guitars step into the background, ringing and shaking as Kim Gordon's bass and Bob Bert's rolling toms swirl around your head, creating an atmosphere that goes beyond foreboding into full-on terror. Meanwhile, Thurston as Charlie Manson is joined by guest vocalist Lydia Lunch in the role of Manson killer Sadie Mae Glutz. They sing almost in unison, constructing a dual narrative that is constructed in a creative manner; at one point, Thurston sings "I got sand in my mouth" as Lydia sings "You got sand in your mouth." Then on the next line, Thurston sings, "You got sun in your eyes" as Lydia sings "I got sun in my eyes." But any discussion of this kind of thing avoids the song's dark heart--a matter-of-fact description of a murder committed by both Charlie and Sadie. Lydia Lunch sounds like she's taking an almost sexual pleasure in the act, while Thurston perfectly captures the vicious joy of an unrepentant killer. By the end of this long, creepy interlude, when Thurston says, "She started to holler, so I had to hit it," and Lydia is goading him on, screaming "Hit it!" over and over, the frantic terror is almost too much to bear. Just before everyone freaks out and turns the record off, the band slams back into the song's main riff, but this is not salvation, as the song's final verse is even more frightening, as Thurston repeats the song title over and over while Lydia screams incoherently. There's more fright packed into this five-minute avalanche of a song than most horror movies put into two hours. And this was the album's single! I first heard it on the radio, in fact. The college station played it in the middle of the night when I was 14 years old. It kept me awake for hours.

But really, what better way to end an album constructed entirely around alienation and existential horror than with some actual terror? "Death Valley 69" merely gives voice to sentiments that are implied but not spoken in all of the other songs on Bad Moon Rising. I'm not saying I relate to songs written from the point of view of a serial killer--in fact, it's just the opposite. I think what Sonic Youth reveal in "Death Valley 69" is the underlying fear of all alienated souls--that this world will be too much for them. That feeling like there's nowhere that you belong is something you can only deal with for so long before giving up entirely. And what happens when you give up? Do you attack society as a (w)hole through violent, antisocial acts? Or do you let the suicide holidays win? It's not a question to which there is one permanent answer. You can only answer it in terms of the day, maybe even the hour, that you are living through. And hope that the answer you come up with does indeed involve you living through it.



Blogger Ian St. Germain said...

Holy crap this is long, and i can't wait to read it!
just had to comment first, because i read your tumblr on this (i follow you - i'm ianstgermain.tumblr.com - past the fascination)
i love this record, i have it on vinyl, cd, and cassette, as well as over 100 other sonic youth cd's.
i'm with you on your tumblr comments, so just wanted to say you aren't alone!

also, the thing that really got me to comment was your Disposable Heroes of HipHopracy quote. LOVE it! thanks

12:00 AM  
Blogger .lkjhg said...

Andrew. Why?? Why are you so critical of those who surpassing you in every field? I understand that you are a loser and that you have nothing better to do other than rip apart others music and actions. Your stupid.

-That person.

7:09 PM  
Blogger Andrew TSKS said...

That's an interesting comment to leave on a totally positive blog post, which is located on a blog that I've devoted almost exclusively to positive writeups of music I enjoy, but... OK.

1:33 AM  

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