Friday, September 19, 2008

The Sucking of Things Past

Judith Warner has it backwards. She writes:

It’s a funny thing I’ve noticed lately, listening to the “classic rock” stations that are now — unbelievably — broadcasting the soundtrack of my life: bad music sounds so good once it becomes the music of your youth. All the songs you hated, all the bands you mocked, all the pop clichés you spurned because you were so much cooler than all that now sound so soulful, so very real.

Not for me they don't. What's probably true of radio now was true then: about one percent of it was memorable, and most of the good music never made it on to the radio to begin with. For every Alice Cooper or Bruce Springsteen or the Clash, there were piles and piles of crap -- all of which was sequenced for my listening torture yesterday on the way back from Charleston in a car with only a radio.

It's a funny thing I've noticed lately, Judith, but Styx does not sound better as the years go by. Nor does Kansas. Nor does Toto. Nor does Journey. Nor do the Eagles. And believe you me, neither does REO Speedwagon. "Heard it from a friend who-ooo, heard it from a friend who-ooo, heard it from another you been messing around..."

Some lyrics are just like those boring, annoying dreams where you would give anything to wake up.

I guess you could argue that Abba sounds better in retrospect, but hell, I thought they sounded good then. (Not only that, it's worth pointing out that the reason Abba has always lasted so well is that they've always sounded nostalgic. Even when I was 18, hearing "Dancing Queen" made me recall the happy days of my innocent youth, which in truth had only just started.)

I think the great, often unremarked advantage of so-called classic radio is that it can actually make you glad you are no longer young, glad that the days are gone when you had to listen to that shit because it was all that was on, glad that there are more choices and that, if you feel like it, you can listen to the same Sonic Youth record over and over and over.

Which reminds me ... I have developed over the past year an incredible devotion to this band that I should probably devote ever more screens dissecting and discussing, because there's just so damned much to talk about.

Take "Dude Ranch Nurse" from the 2004 album Sonic Nurse. It's an incredibly moving song about need and loneliness, told from the perspective of a woman who could either be addressing a real or imaginary lover.

Keep on running in the dark
Dude ranch dream has fallen apart
Stolen kisses lets pretend my friend
You play sick and I will mend
Let the action begin again
You be patient and I’ll attend
Lets rehearse, let's do it again
Dude ranch nurse, yr brand new friend

That's the first verse, which puts you in the mind of two people playing a sexy game of Doctor. But there's a lot more going on in Kim Gordon's sotto voce vocal, because you get the distinct sense there's no one else around. There isn't anyone to play with; there's an edge of desperation to her voice, a desire to have somebody, to play a role in someone's life, to give aid and comfort. She wants a dude and there are no dudes to be found; she's trying to use her feminine wiles to seduce a dream into reality.

From the earliest days of Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon's songs have tended to be about sexual allurement and vulnerability. On Confusion is Sex, there's "Protect Me You," where a seemingly troubled young girl, from the ages of ten to eighteen, asks for protection -- and you get the distinct sense she's begging just the person who is going to destroy her.

Therey are full, also, of fascinating ambiguities.

Just what is the "dude ranch dream"? Is it, maybe, a dream of being surrounded by men, of being their whore even, of being constantly put to use? Is she saying that's better than the alternative, which is to have no one at all? Is she Strindberg's Miss Julie marooned on Brokeback Mountain?

Okay, that was silly. Maybe.

Anyway, the song reminds me in some ways of Rickie Lee Jones' "Last Chance Texaco" or the Pretenders' "Lovers of Today," particularly the latter, since the last line of the song is what gives it a heartbreaking edge. Just by singing the words "Nobody knows the shape I'm in" over and over, you get this sense of a woman who is in the end, all alone, whose nobody's brand new friend, who, to quote one of Gordon's earlier sexually-charged classics, knows the exact dimensions of hell.

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