Come On Feel The Noise

SONIC YOUTH_131281 001sonic youth @ cbgb december 1981 photo by catherine cresole

“What’s the best way to play guitar with drumsticks? Well, when Thurston Moore jammed one up the neck of his electric during Sonic Youth’s Sunday afternoon set at CBGB it sounded great. Just as the quartet seemed to be on the verge of a melody, boom! A downstroke from bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Richard Edson’s cymbal crashes pushed the guitarists into glorious chaos. The room got drenched with droning feedback, ear-splitting harmonics, tangled rhythms and the amplified whir of an electric drill. A week later and I’m still not sure what hit me, but I know I loved it.” – New York Rocker 1981

In retrospect I was in the right place at the right time entirely by accident. My second assignment for New York Rocker was a live review of a new band called Sonic Youth. (The first was a John Cale show billed as solo piano that wound up being his full band circa Honi Soit LP.)  I’d actually witnessed the prototype version of the band (without Lee Ranaldo) at the noise fest the previous summer. But even that couldn’t have prepared me for what I heard and saw when I walked into CBGB one autumn night in 1981. The band was raw and still working out their radical approach to making music but the now-familiar elements were all in place: clanging harmonics and ear-numbing feedback, yes, but also moments of atmospheric calm and twisted beauty plus Kim Gordon’s hypnotic vocals on a song or two. I approached Thurston Moore after their set and told him I’d been assigned a review; this was long before the days of publicists, hangers-on and backroom protocol on every level of the music scene. Downtown in those days was democratic. People were equals on both sides of the stage. If you ask am I surprised that Sonic Youth went on to achieve everything they did my answer is a resounding NO. While I never could have predicted what happened to them – and me – in the years to come, I knew it would be something. It’s hard to pin down, but the sound of possibility was everywhere in New York City then. There was music in the streets.

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Noise Fest June 1981

A passer-by might reasonably have wondered what the hell was going on. Dozens of people filtered out of a generic industrial building, milled around in the street for half an hour, and then drifted back inside. Repeat. Of course there were almost no passers-by; on weekend nights, the western fringes of Soho, home of printers and trade publishers like my first employer, were deserted.

During the week I’d passed by this place a couple times on my way to have a vodka-soaked lunch with my boss at the nearby Ear Inn, a homey bar with decent chili. Across the street, a sign in the big picture window identified the empty ground floor showroom as an art gallery called White Columns. If there actually was art hanging on the walls, then I never noticed.

I was drawn to my work neighborhood on the evening in question by an enticing Xeroxed handbill that read like this:

I wound up attending multiple nights of the Noise Fest but the top-billed performance on Saturday the 20th was the one that permanently rearranged my molecular structure. The evening’s entertainment, if you could call it that, was flat-out insane: half-a-dozen electric guitarists lined up like a firing squad, just hammering away at their amplifiers, each player strumming and scraping the same chord for ten minutes at a stretch, with a single rigid drummer keeping time.

Instantly I recognized the group’s leader. Glenn Branca conducted his ensemble by fanatically waving his battered Fender like a baton. Or weapon. I’d already seen this rangy guy striding around St. Marks Place and the East Village any number of times, always swilling from a 16 ounce can of Colt 45, accompanied by several severe-looking yet oddly attractive women – artistic types. Between these rapt followers and his radical approach to making, er, music, he resembled the leader of a cult.

While Branca played that Saturday night I could see the warm waves of raw high-volume sound waft out across the stuffy, smoke-filled room. It felt like standing on the runway at JFK behind a departing jet. The effect was cleansing, and after the initial shock, even uplifting. Listening was a fresh physical experience, brutally sensual, the actual notes (signal) and their amplified echo (noise) merging into one dense roar, connecting my ears, brain and guts on an instinctual circuit rarely plumbed by music. Above all else it felt controlled, deliberate: a far cry from the chaotic, cathartic release of punk rock.

I bought a lukewarm Heineken from the genial blond stringbean who more or less seemed to be running the show as well as the makeshift concession stand. (Of course he turned out to be Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.) Otherwise the ringing in my ears and my big city reticence precluded any reaching out to the kindred spirits in attendance. But the social ice began to melt away for me at the Noise Fest. As intimidating and crazy as the bill of fare appeared on the surface, I was encouraged by the fact that a handful of other people heard this cacophony as liberating rather than obnoxious. Nobody fostered any illusions about mass popularity or acceptance. In our obscure corner of the city, as long as somebody listened, well, anything seemed possible.