Youth in Revolt

Two decades later, Sonic Youth is younger than ever

If the thought of keeping up with the latest and greatest in underground rock, combing through second-hand record stores until you develop carpal tunnel syndrome, managing the day-to-day operations of a small label, parenting, producing/recording/writing/composing music, reading, writing, living and breathing makes you want to scream enough is enough is enough, then chances are you can't hang with Sonic Youth. That's just an average week for the five (yes, five) real-life adults who make up the veteran rock experimentalists.

Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Renaldo, Steve Shelley and, most recently, freelancing hired gun and "fifth member" Jim O'Rourke, have the sort of ephemeral indie cred that eludes even the most ardent scenesters. From December 1999 to summer 2000, the band let loose three releases: the DJ Olive/Ikue Mori/Kim Gordon, the two-CD set of modern composers (Goodbye Twentieth Century) on the band's SYR label and the newest Sonic Youth album proper, Interscope's NYC Ghosts & Flowers. Jane recently ran a story just to check in on rock's über-hip family--Gordon, Moore and their daughter Coco--and their recent move to western Massachusetts. Renaldo's always plying his guitar trade somewhere. Shelley's Smells Like Records has already unleashed three solid albums this year in Christina Rosenvinge, John Wolfington and Fuck. And O'Rourke keeps the sort of schedule that just thinking about could cause a narcoleptic wave to wash over President Bush.

Contrary to photographic evidence, Sonic Youth now includes five members. Tip your bottles for freelancing hired gun Jim O'Rourke.
Corrine Day
Contrary to photographic evidence, Sonic Youth now includes five members. Tip your bottles for freelancing hired gun Jim O'Rourke.

Of course, not everybody thinks the band and its members are all that. Some people try to chide the band--and especially Moore's top-whatever lists, like 1994's "Top Ten From the Free Jazz Underground" that ran in Grand Royal--as playing a crucial role in turning obscure recordings and underground artists into fetishized and highly priced collectibles. Such spleen may have some merit if Moore wasn't so earnestly enthusiastic and supportive of other artists and the music they make. In fact, Moore provided one of the most sincere and educational forms of reverence when he hooked up with writer Byron Coley to compile last year's Jazzactuel boxed set, a compendium of Paris' BYG/Actuel label that released free jazz and avant psychedelia from 1968 to the early 1970s.

"There's this kind of weird reissue label in Europe called Charly, and it's run by one of the guys who was involved with the original BYG label in France," Moore explains. "And he has all the masters [tapes from the original albums]. It's sort of a controversial situation because most of the artists who recorded for [BYG/Actuel] think of him as a kind of a plantation-master thief in a way. But there was somebody working at Charly who realized that they had all these masters and realized the historical importance of this music, and he wanted to do a survey of the label. And he had found out that both Byron and I were sort of aficionados of that music, and of that label in particular, and they contacted us.

"Initially we said we're really not that interested," he admits. "It seemed like another situation where the artists are going to get sort of exploited. And the guy said, 'Well, in a sense I can see where you're coming from, but in another sense, Charly is probably going to reissue this stuff anyway and do a very fly-by-night job on it. All we're asking of you is maybe give it a bit more of a curatorial, historical perspective.' So we decided that well, maybe it would be sort of righteous to do something different--if they're going to release something anyway--and give it the real story of what that label was all about, as much as we can."

Coley and Moore worked on the collection from 1997 to 1999, digging through piles of photos and master tapes. Along the way, they met Jacques Bisceglia, the man who took a number of the photos that grace the Actuel albums, those large, impressive color and B&W images of people like Archie Shepp in a dashiki blowing his tenor in front of a throng of African men with indigenous instruments inside Yasmina, A Black Woman (Actuel 9). What they came up with is a three-CD set containing more than three hours of music from 26 artists. Included are the recognizable names from the imprint--Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Steve Lacy and Shepp--but also some of the lesser-known iconoclasts, such as Dave Burrell, Andrew Cyrille, Grachan Moncur III, Jimmy Lyons, Sunny Murray and Alan Silva, in addition to avant freaks like Daevid Allen, Musica Elettronica Viva, Gong and many, many others.

"We wanted to put together the compilation which gives you a sense of all the music on the label as opposed to just the celebrity names," Moore says. "So we thought it'd be a really good idea to sort of research it and interview some of the people and find out as much about the history of the artists and label as we could and just write about it. So we got a couple of hundred bucks, and we spent about two years doing it."

The accompanying booklet offers the most illuminating account of the time period. It contains moments that are distinctly Coley--only the man who once observed that sometimes "Robert Christgau makes about as much sense as an ass crack full of pennies" could come up with the adjective "ball-shredding" to describe Shepp's languid, lovely "Blasé"--while others are more Moore. He's more in tune with highlighting the sociopolitical context of the time and giving the story the resonant edge that imparts why these recordings are so valuable. The end result is one of the best archives of a time period that the past decade of reissues has produced, up there with Smithsonian Folkways' Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music Vol. I-III and the entire Revenant catalog.

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