Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation

In the next few weeks, we’ll be releasing a few new books in the series, including those on albums by Captain Beefheart, Steely Dan, the Minutemen, and A Tribe Called Quest. First up, though, is Matthew Stearns’ book on Daydream Nation. Here’s an extract. (Not sure that footnotes and blog entries mix too well, so this extract is missing a couple of those.)


Sonic Youth’s manipulated-guitar fetishism, and by extension their avid affection for the modification of things generally, reaches its ultimate expression in the form of the lovingly destroyed (and tragically pilfered) Drifter. Ah, The Drifter. Now, this is the kind of guitar your mother warned you about. The mangiest, nastiest, rattiest piece of detuned refuse ever allowed out of the house after dark. Legendary for its Rasputin-like refusal to die, The Drifter was the kind of guitar-catastrophe that could make, one imagines, small or medium-sized children or the infirm recoil in horror at the sight of it; only to run for their lives once the magnificent, ungodly “wooooowruwrooooowruwrooooow” cry issued forth from its miserable bowels. For nearly twenty years, The Drifter stood faithfully at the ready, a beaten-down-but-not-out veteran of historic, epic skirmishes that took place at the far edges of the Sonic Youth repertoire. (On Daydream Nation, the guitar is featured most prominently on “Eric’s Trip.”) A catalogue of the accumulated damage inflicted on this animal over the years reads like an unfortunate medical examiner’s report from some abandoned rock’n’roll morgue-outpost:

* All frets removed
* Strung up with four bass strings
* Two E tuners removed
* Two drumsticks wedged under strings
* Single coil pickups taped into body
* All knobs duct taped over
* Obvious fractures

In terms of Sonic Youth’s renegade proclivity for the physical manipulation of objects (musical or otherwise) in the service of discovering new forms of sound, the band, after an extended and frustrated history with an ever-changing cast of drummers, met with a decidedly appropriate, complementary accomplice in Steve Shelley. Steve, who was raised in Michigan on a steady diet of pure-grade Midwest underground rock and hardcore, joined the band following the release of Bad Moon Rising in 1985. The circumstances surrounding his hiring will go down as the most fortuitous apartment sublet story in the history of apartment sublet stories: “I was in this band called the Crucifucks in the Midwest,” recalls Steve. “Sonic Youth was aware of my band and had a demo cassette we had made that they used to play before they went on as pre-show music. My band was always falling apart and coming back together again. But at one point we played a show at CBGB’s, a punk matinee show. Thurston and Lee came to the show and I met them, and we stayed in touch afterwards. Back in Michigan, the Crucifucks broke up and I wound up subletting Kim and Thurston’s apartment while they were on tour with Bob Bert in the UK. This was just before Bad Moon Rising was released. Along the way, Bob decided to leave the band. Kim and Thurston came home and basically I was there with my bags packed – I’d found another sublet in the city. I was going to try and stay in New York for a while but I didn’t know what I was going to do. So, basically, they had a drummer in their apartment. And they hired me for the band, right then and there. I didn’t audition or anything.”

I stare at him half agog, half giddy, as if to ask: Are you fucking kidding me?

He’s unabashedly still delighted, even after being a permanent fixture in the band for decades, when he responds: “They were my favorite band…Yeah, it was a dream job.”

They were my favorite band. I’m so touched by his sincerity and lack of artifice that I come dangerously close to standing up and throwing my arms around him at this point. Which would have been out of line, but I just know he would have handled it with grace and good humor. I mean, this guy is unshakably, almost infuriatingly decent. Which is not to say that he won’t knock your brains loose with a pair of drumsticks.


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  4. It’s a bummer to hear the lyrical interpretations may be way off, but at the same time I take critical discussion of lyrics pretty lightly. It’s always interesting to hear someone else’s interpretation of a lyric, or even their interpretation of what the actual lyric is if there isn’t a lyric sheet, but all it is to me is an opinion to consider. Ex.: I remember reading a SPIN article back in ’88 or so that talked about the influence of Philip Dick’s VALIS on this record, and also I may have made this up, but William Gibson’s first couple of cyberpunk novels. Despite that (and my love for all things SY, PKD and WG), I still don’t really equate them when I listen to Daydream Nation, or read VALIS or Mona Lisa Overdrive for that matter.Still, nice if they at least managed to get the words right to begin with…Thurston, if that is you, NYC is begging for a Daydream Nation ATP Don’t Look Back performance or ten!!!

  5. re: sonic youth / daydream nation : At first look I see that Stearns mishears lyrics WRONG for two songs I sing/sang but actually discusses them in their wrongness. Curious: did he get the lyrics from some internet lyric sites? He had access to us, he should’ve run the lyrics by us for checking.Pg 62 “Silver Rocket” – Stearns: “you gotta have the time / got a letter in your mind / got a heart injection / that you got yourself a line”Correct lyric: “You got a hand in time / got another in yr mind / you got yr heart injected / you got yr soul aligned”I never sing the word “a line” and Stearns ends the chapter actually illustrating said “line” to the point of asking ‘what the fuck , man?’. What the fuck indeed.Pg 102 “Total Trash” – Stearns: “It’s a guilty man / that increased the crack / it’s total trash / sack ’em on the back / with a heavy rock”Correct lyric: “It’s a guilty man / that can grease the crack / it’s total trash / slap him on the back / with a heavy rock”Nothing to do with the “increased” crack cocaine epidemic of the time as deduced by Stearns I’m afraid. The lyric has more to do with record company boys trading butt-licks.The author makes tense errors in the Teenage Riot and Total Trash lyrics that change the lyric intention but I won’t drone on that. It does make me suspect if the Kim and Lee lyrics are correct. I’ll read the book through this week.thurston

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