Friday, May 23, 2008

"Tuff Gnarl"

The news that Sonic Youth is doing a "greatest hits" CD for sale at Starbucks stores has left this aging indie rocker nostalgic and perplexed.

I recall with some affection arguments I had in 1987 and 1988 with employees of other record stores -- not the ones I worked at -- in the D.C. area about bands like Husker Du and The Replacements signing to major labels.

I remember vividly one guy swearing that he would never listen to anything by those two bands on Sire despite the fact that just about anyone would agree that The Replacements' Tim on Sire is the band's finest hour (yeah, Pleased To Meet Me has the ultimate hook of "Alex Chilton" but Tim just seems as perfectly fucked up and melodic as any band could possibly be on one album).

Husker Du fans, myself included, were a bit more upbeat about the band's signing to a major label; it seemed the wise thing to do as this band, prolific to a fault in the mid-1980s, had all the earmarks of a band about to break into the mainstream like R.E.M. -- alas, that never happened.

At the time, I thought it laughable to ignore artists one liked simply because of their choice to sign Sire Records. After all, Sire was good enough for The Talking Heads and The Ramones so who were these Reagan-era hipsters to look down their nose at the Huskers or The 'Mats?

Over the course of a few years -- a few decades -- I've come to feel that there is some integrity in doing things the indie, non-corporate, way (like Fugazi, maybe) but it's the results that matter in the end.

And the proof of that was the deal Sonic Youth got with Geffen in 1990. From all appearances, the band did not have to compromise in the slightest when they signed to Geffen and their albums on the label don't really show the signs of corporate interference, do they? -- "100%" is hardly radio-friendly.

They were probably one of the last bands to be able to get away with this kind of deal before indie and grunge were turned into corporate styles to be marketed just like gangster rap.

So my take on the matter is that Sonic Youth is doing Starbucks a favor and if some yuppie hears an old Sonic Youth song for the first time and then goes out and finds EVOL and reads about the band, good for him.

There is something wonderfully ironic about the fact that a Sonic Youth CD will now be easier to find in a coffee shop in the middle of America than in a music store.

Here is one of my favorite Sonic Youth songs -- from their major label period! -- Yikes! -- with a pregnant Kim Gordon rocking out on "Bull In The Heather" on Letterman's show in Spring, 1994:


And for the hipsters out there, here "Tuff Gnarl," maybe my favorite track from the 1987 SST album Sister:


TRIVIA: My big regret from 1990, when I briefly worked as Assistant Manager at a Kemp Mill Record Store, (apart from actually working in that place) was not going to meet Sonic Youth at the Warner Brothers offices in nearby Greenbelt, Maryland. At the time, Geffen was still a WB-distributed company and invites to this meet-and-greet were the only cool promo-type thing I remember being offered at Kemp Mill. Compared to my previous gig at the University of Maryland Record Co-Op, it was a land barren of freebies from the majors.

I gave the passes to my friend Billy from the nearby used record store I used to work at partly to piss off the Kemp Mill district manager -- I hated that job and that guy! -- this was the guy who did a surprise appearance at my store on 4th of July weekend and had the nerve to bust my chops for playing a Marvin Gaye "Greatest Hits" because it was not in the Top 40-approved in-store playlist.

And the idea of Billy, who looked like Dave Grohl in the "Teen Spirit" video at the time, showing up in my place at the Geffen offices to meet the Youth and have some free food seemed fitting; I knew he would enjoy it one way or another.

Another post and I can relate how I almost got fired from the Co-op a few months before it closed when I was "managing" Billy's band, Elegant Mess, who made Sonic Youth look like The Monkees.

Hey, I did get their tape into the hands of people at the Shimmydisc label and they name-dropped the band in the College Music Journal (CMJ) so that is a minor victory.