Joe Pop

Joe Pop Vs. Sonic Youth

For many years, I was feuding with Sonic Youth. There was no specific event that led to this stand off, we just didn't gel. If they came into a room in a party, I had to leave. In the school dinner hall, we would never sit at the same table. They had their crowd, I had mine.

Actually, I never knew Sonic Youth, but I just didn't get them. When they arrived on the scene, the inkies raved about them, but they were far too cerebral for me. I didn't understand their talk of Free Jazz Improvisation, Sun Ra and John Zorn, preferring some Goth pantomime like Fields of the Nephilim instead. I had no frame of reference for their weird mumbled, scratchy and discordant music.

 I also hated the people who liked Sonic Youth, the hip kids in black who I assumed sneered at me for my simplistic and popular tastes in culture. Sonic Youth represented everything I was not: super cool, nihilistic and intellectual. But then I got older, and realised this hatred of Sonic Youth came from the place where I needed to define myself by who I was opposed to just as much as by what I liked. Over time, Sonic Youth became part of the underground rock establishment, regularly releasing music, doing gigs and tours like any other band. I was dimly aware of their presence, but only on the periphery of my attention. Eventually I forgot about Sonic Youth.

But recently they started to creep up on me. First I bought a t-shirt with the cover artwork for the album Goo on it, because I liked its beatnik graphic cool. Then I was in a record store, and Goo itself was being played, and it sounded interesting. Maybe my ears were now ready for Sonic youth? So I take Goo home…and it sounded great! There were the primal guitars of the Stooges, the artsy shit of Patti Smith, and when Kim Gordon comes in and does her deadpan Shangri-La's on morphine drawl…it just rocks!

I've always been interested in Kim Gordon. Drop dead cool guitar slinging chick in a drop dead cool band, a mother, a clothes designer, artist and nearly 50…she's a boho role model for us all.

…So, like, I'm in the West Village, and a voice says "Hey, wanna come to the thrift store with me?" and it's Kim Gordon! She's wearing an ironic late 60's Afghan sheepskin jacket, artfully tousled dirty blonde hair and a chalky pallor. Her hand rests on the handle of the pushchair, where Rimbaud, her latest baby sweetly sleeps. "Sure", I say. And we walk through the shabby New York streets, and we talk of sexism and Vietnam and Iraq and Stevie Nicks as cipher and the films of Godard and Charles Mingus until we get to the huge thrift store. Very quickly I find an amazing 70's t-shirt, quite tight, with a cute Sesame Street logo on it! I put it on. I look edgy and now! Kim also finds some ragged stuff that looks nothing off, but on her, with her downtown boho magic, looks like the greatest look in the world. Note taking fashion forecasters fall out of trees, Dictaphones in hand, as we walk down the street.

"Hey", says Kim, "I'm now going to our loft studio space to rehearse. Wanna come jam?" "Sure" I say. We walk some more, through a New York full of Keith Haring graffiti, steam coming out of sewer grates and homeless people warming themselves around fires lit in old oil drums to the loft space. To get to the top floor we ride up in a huge clanking, shrieking industrial lift. Metal on metal. The rest of Sonic Youth are there, sitting on amps, tuning guitars, laid back and friendly, looking like a scruffy bunch of supply geography teachers. Kim gives Rimbaud a quick feed, and then its time to rock out. Someone hands me a white Telecaster. "This used to belong to Tom Verlaine". I strap it on, the group starts to play, and a discordant and ferocious yet tuneful wall of noise emerges. I, with no previous experience, somehow manage to bring out a feedback whine, which builds and floods my soul. I am a rock Frankenstein, brought to life by the electricity! The power currents orgasm through my body as I and the noise become one. It's just like Patti Smith said, that feedback from a guitar was just like what Jackson Pollock did with paint…

…And just then Patti Smith herself sticks her head around the studio door. Could she, like, man, come in and do some improvised words over our music? Of course! And Patti comes in and does a brilliant freeform rap about Jimi Hendrix and Salome and Iraq. Her words are strident and purposeful, and I am full of the righteous anger of her words and the electricity. Suddenly Patti hands me the mike. "Speak" she says, and I, without plan or thought do a piece about Kerry Katona, the Soham murders and Peek Freen biscuits that encapsulates and defines the ennui and pain of British modern life. I'm there, right in the middle of New York art rock central, and just when I don't think it can get any better, Iggy Pop drops in to borrow a cup of sugar, and strips his shirt off and does some of his visceral howls over our wall of art soaked sonic action painting rock. The atmosphere is, as they say, electric.

We play for what seems like hours and then we bring it all to a slow juddering end, as guitars die and whine, until…silence. For the first time in years, I feel the need of a post coital cigarette. Then Patti Smith invites us all to her loft space for green tea and to have a go on Alan Ginsberg's Indian hand pump organ. I feel so alive as I look out the window at a New York skyline full of possibilities.