Thursday, December 17, 2015

Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth, Montreal, February 1991 

I WAS NERVOUS AS I BEGAN SETTING UP MY LIGHTS to shoot Sonic Youth in their Montreal hotel room. Guitarist Lee Ranaldo almost leapt across the room when I opened my camera case, and began inspecting my gear.

"What do you have in there?" he asked. "Is that a Rolleiflex?"

Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore seemed to be eyeing me warily from the bed by the far wall. We'd met before, and I was going to see if they remembered, but before I could say anything they had a question for me.

"Hey, you're from Toronto," said Thurston. "Do you know this guy Chris Buck? He keeps wanting to take our picture. He's pretty weird."

Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, 84 Eldridge Street, NYC, October 1985

The last time I'd been in a room with Kim and Thurston was over five years previous, when I went to New York City for the first time. Dave from Nerve magazine told me that I should try to set up an interview with this band, Sonic Youth, while I was down there.

"I don't like them, but I think they could be important," he said. He arranged for me to borrow a copy of their latest record, Bad Moon Rising, from CKLN, the college radio station at Ryerson, and I took it home for a listen. There was all this stuff about Charles Manson and a guest vocal by Lydia Lunch, who always made me uncomfortable. It was droney and noisy and dark. I though it was sort of scary.

An interview somehow got arranged with their record company, and I met half the band - Kim and Thurston - at their apartment on Eldridge Street in the Bowery. I have a vague memory of Thurston's impressive record collection, and none whatsoever of my interview with them, but when it came time for the photos, Kim and Thurston suggested we go to the roof of the building.

It was a pretty mediocre shoot. This is the best frame. I must have been intimidated by them because this is the closest I ever got. At one point they jokingly posed like Run-DMC, so I suppose they were trying to get me to loosen up, but I was probably still spooked by the whole Manson thing.

Sonic Youth live, Diamond Club, Toronto, Nov. 1988

The next time I saw Kim and Thurston again their band had become one of my favorites, thanks to the release of Evol and Sister, which are still among my favorite records of the '80s. The Manson thing still go to me, but I'd come to tentatively embrace the whole culture of morbidity that was a big part of indie rock at the time.

They played the Diamond Club (now the Phoenix Concert Theatre) and I shot the show for Nerve. I've been over the whole roll and a bit I shot of the show and for some reason I have a lot of shots of Lee and Kim, a few of drummer Steve Shelley, but none of Thurston. I don't know why. Perhaps I was already feeling put off by his rather relentless hipper-than-thou persona. Maybe I was just stuck on the wrong side of the stage.

Sonic Youth, Montreal, February 1991 

Just over two years later I was assigned by my friend Tim at HMV Magazine to shoot the band in Montreal while they were on tour supporting Neil Young. As recalled in Kim's recent autobiography, Girl in a Band, it was "grueling; the dead of winter, a frozen ocean of endless arena locker rooms."

Nineteen ninety-one would prove to be, as Sonic Youth would later dub it, "The Year Punk Broke," but just two months into that year, Kim didn't recall her band going over too well with either Neil's crew ("Throughout the tour, we were almost never allowed a sound check...") or Neil's fans:
"Neil always drew big crowds, including legions of hippies loyal to his music. Those same crowds were incredibly put off by us, to the degree that if fans sitting among them appreciated or applauded one of our songs they were aggressively shouted down."
After I told them that, yes, I knew Chris Buck and that he was a friend, we got down to the shoot, which I did with a combination of cross-processed 120 film - both slide and negative - and two rolls of black and white shot with my Nikon. I did nothing to disguise the hotel room location - it was where I did most of my shooting for so many years, and there were only so many white walls you could stick someone against.

Sonic Youth, Montreal, February 1991 

Two days later, for some reason, I found myself backstage at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto after their show with Neil. As Kim would remember in her book, the tour passed through Canada in the depth of winter, and Toronto had just been hit with a big snowstorm.

The band were only staying a half block away at the Westbury Hotel (now a Marriott Courtyard) and Kim and I were among the last people who left the Gardens. Both before and after that, I'd talked with Chris and his friend Dave about how Sonic Youth - and Kim in particular - seemed to be afflicted with a kind of Canuckophobia, based on frequent remarks they'd made about the place. Kim's aversion to Toronto seemed to go back to a year she spent here at York University. I spent a year at York; I can understand why you'd hate Toronto if it was your home base in the city.

With this in mind, I noticed that Kim wasn't particularly dressed to navigate the huge snow drifts between the arena and her hotel, so I made myself conspicuously helpful, gallantly holding her arm as we navigated the drifts. I figured that if she was going to have such a bleak take on my hometown and Canadians, I'd might as well do my best to provide a counterpart - the chivalrous Canadian lad, courtly and respectful of ladies who might be unprepared for our bitter climate. (Think Mountie Constable Benton Fraser from Due South.)

I remember getting an actual smile from Kim when I saw her to the door of her hotel. I might actually have bowed from the waist.

I suppose I was a shocked as anyone when Thurston's infidelity a few years back spelled the end of not just Kim and Thurston's marriage but Sonic Youth. Some of my generation seemed genuinely saddened, even disillusioned, by the news. I had always seen Thurston as a bit of a boy-man, so once I was past the shock it all made sense - or about as much sense as any divorce does.

My reaction felt a bit more personal than it would at just any bit of celebrity gossip, though, because of my long, if fleeting, acquaintance with the band, and the couple at its heart. It was like learning that some old college friends who seemed perfect for each other had busted up, with obvious acrimony. It felt very adult, but the second part of Sonic Youth's name had always been ironic, as their fans knew all too well, though it took something really grown up to make the joke finally stick in everyone's throats.


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