The Ugly Breakup of Sonic Youth
Today on Rock N’ Roll True Stories, they take a look at the band Sonic Youth and their ugly breakup. Check it out below!
Sonic Youths classic lineup was made up of vocalist and guitarists, Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and drummer Steve Shelley, and they were credited with doing things with guitar that hadn’t really been done before. That included — creating sounds with strangely tuned guitars, using feedback and placing objects on or between between the strings such as drum sticks and power drills. Author Michael Azzerad who has written extensively about America’s indie underground rock scene said the following of sonic youth’s sound:
[Sonic Youth] could only afford cheap guitars, and cheap guitars sounded like cheap guitars. But with weird tunings or something jammed under a particular fret, those humble instruments could sound rather amazing – bang a drum stick on a cheap Japanese Stratocaster copy in the right tuning, crank the amplifier to within an inch of its life and it will sound like church bells
Sonic Youth would be a huge influence on the alternative rock acts who followed in their footsteps most notably Nirvana who claimed even after the release of their juggernaut album Nevermind that they wanted to be like Sonic Youth.
Sonic Youth would become one of the most popular yet staunchly independent bands throughout the 80’s in the United States. The band spent a good chunk of the decade releasing albums on independent labels with their streak ending after the release of 1988’s Daydream Nation. The album received universal acclaim from critics, but it was met with modest sales. The band was disappointed with how the their record label Enigma was treating them. The label was suffering from distribution and financial issues, so Sonic Youth would leave them the following year and signed with DGC, which was owned by Geffen Records. Their first release with Geffen 1990’s Goo, would be their biggest album of their career up until that point . The album would net the band their first appearance on the billboard 200 charts with the album selling in excess of 100,000 units and yielded the hit song Kool Thing. The album proved that Sonic Youth they didn’t have to sacrifice their experimental sound while at the same time being radio friendly
The band’s follow up album Dirty, released in 1992 was put out during the height of grunge’s popularity. The band worked with Nirvana producer butch vig and mixer andy wallace, both of whom wanted to condense down the band’s songs and focus heavily on the guitar sounds. Due to nirvana’s success with nevermind, Geffen records heavily promoted the album and it would chart within the top 100 albums in the US and go gold selling over half a million copies. The band would once again work with Producer Butch Vig on their follow up album 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. The album would prove to be one of the band’s highest charting albums of their career peaking in the top 40 in America. The record was more subdued and quieter featuring some throwbacks to their indie label days. The same year Gordon and Moore welcomed their first child and the tour to support the album wasn’t as strenuous as their previous records due to Gordon’s pregnancy.
By 1995 the band would headline lollapalooza and following that appearance the band took some time apart while it’s members pursued other musical projects. Between 1995 and 2007 the band would release a series of albums for Geffen records while also starting to release more experimental and instrumental records under their own record label. The band would release their first and final album on Matador records with 2009’s The Eternal. Two years later the band would announce their break up in October of 2011 shocking their fans.
Kim Gordon’s and Thurston Moore would announce in a band statement that the pair had separated after 27 years of marriage. The band still had dates in south america planned later in the year which they were still committed to playing with their final show as a band taking place on november 14, 2011 at the swu music and arts festival in sao paulo brazil. The week following the performance, bassist Lee Ranaldo would state in an interview that Sonic Youth would be “ending for a while”
Matador also explained that plans for the band remained “uncertain”, despite previously hinting that they would record new material later in the year. Sonic Youth performed their final concert
Kim Gordon recalled the band’s last show together saying in her 2015 memoir Girl in a Band saying:
When we came out onstage for our last show, the night was all about the boys. Thurston double-slapped our bass guitarist on the shoulder and loped across the stage, followed by Lee Ranaldo, our guitarist, and then Steve Shelley, our drummer. I found that gesture so phony, so childish, such a fantasy. Thurston has many acquaintances, but with the few male friends he had he never spoke of anything personal, and he’s never been the shoulder-slapping type. It was a gesture that called out, I’m back. I’m free. I’m solo.
Thurston and I had exchanged maybe fifteen words all week. After twenty-seven years of marriage, things had fallen apart between us. ]
So why did the marriage fall apart?
It would come out that Moore cheated on his wife with a woman named Eva Prinz, who was a book editor he had worked with for years. He would end up moving to London with her.
Gordon was candid about the affair in her 2015 memoir Girl In A Band, in slow motion, a pattern of lies, ultimatums, and phoney promises, followed by emails and texts that almost felt designed to be stumbled on, so as to force me to make a decision that he was too much of a coward to face. I was furious. It wasn’t just the responsibility he was refusing to take; it was the person he had turned me into: his mother.”
What made things worse was that Kim knew Eva and as someone being the blunt person she is even discussed her in interviews saying to Billboard.com
Frankly, I was quite restrained and undetailed referring to her book. I just hit a nerve because this woman Thurston’s with is a toxic borderline. To have that out in the world as a role model: It’s f—ed up. I didn’t just hate her. If you met her, you would understand.
Moore would talk to Collide magazine where he defended himself claiming despite the dissolution of his marriage he didn’t want sonic youth to end saying I find it really strange that I get demonised for the break-up of Sonic Youth when I myself had no intention of breaking up the band; that was a real surprise to me,”
He would also be candid about his shortcoming in an interview in 2014 with the fly stating
their marriage and i quote “ended in a kind of normal way – midlife crisis, starstruck woman.”
He would go on to say I’ll always have that experience of sadness that a separation brings, especially one that was as important, not just to me, but everybody around us. There have been some fall-outs, but that’s to be expected. It’s pretty heavy
“I’ve had some life issues, In your 40s and 50s, things can change in ways that upset the order of things that have been established over 25 years-plus of marriage. It’s really distressing. You have to work through it, it’s very personal and I don’t really talk about it so much.”
It’s been 9 years since the band’s breakup and it’s members have pursued other musical projects but what have the band members said about a reunion? Well it seems unlikely anything will happen as Gordon’s 2015 memoir states several times that the band is done for good and in 2013 Ranaldo has stated that people should let the band rest in peace. Despite the ugly nature of their breakup the band’s business relationship still seems to be workgin as they have put out live releases and new merch.
(Courtesy Dey Street Books.)
We could have canceled the tour, but we’d signed a contract. Performing live is how bands make a living, and we all had families and bills to pay, and in my and Thurston’s case, college tuition for our daughter Coco to think about. At the same time, I wasn’t sure how good it looked to be playing these gigs. I didn’t want people to assume that whatever stuff had gone down between Thurston and me, I was playing a supportive, stand-by-your-man role. I wasn’t. And outside of our immediate circle no one really knew what had happened.
Before flying to South America, Sonic Youth rehearsed for a week at a studio in New York. Somehow I made it through, with the help of a Xanax, the first time I’d ever taken one during the day. Instead of staying at our apartment, which now felt tainted to me, the others agreed to put me up in a hotel.
True to band form, everyone pretended things were the same. I knew the others were too nervous about how things were between Thurston and me to interact with me much, considering they all knew the circumstances of our breakup, and even knew the woman in question. I didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable, and after all, I’d agreed to go along with the tour. I knew everyone had his own private judgments and sympathies, but I was surprised at how jovial everyone was acting. Maybe everyone was just too overwhelmed by the unreality.
The same went in South America. We flew separately. I flew in with the band, and Thurston traveled with Aaron, our front-of-house sound guy. On tour, after the airplane touches down, vans speed you to your hotel. People scatter, sleep, read, eat, exercise, go for a walk, watch TV, e-mail, text. That week in South America, though, everyone in the band, including the crew and the tech guys, came together for meals. A lot of the crew had worked with us for years and were like family members. Thurston sat at one end of the table, with me at the other end. It was like dining out with the folks, except Mom and Dad were ignoring each other. Everyone ordered up big platters of food and drink, and most of our conversations centered on what we were eating and drinking as a way to avoid talking about what was really going on. What was going on was the silent, unwelcome guest in the room.
Our first show was in Buenos Aires. Sonic Youth hadn’t played Argentina in a while, and the audiences were expressive and enthusiastic, and seemed to know every lyric to every song. For the first couple of days, I had my wall up around Thurston, but as the tour went on, I softened a little. With all the history between us, it made me incredibly anxious to hold so much anger toward him. A couple of times he and I found ourselves taking photos outside the hotel, and I made a conscious decision to be friendly, and Thurston did too.
What got me through was being onstage, the visceral release of performing. Extreme noise and dissonance can be an incredibly cleansing thing. Usually when we play live, I worry whether or not my amplifier is too loud or distracting, or if the other members of the band are in a bad mood for some reason. But that week I couldn’t have cared less how loud I was or whether I accidentally upstaged Thurston. I did what I wanted, and it was freeing and painful. Painful because the end of my marriage was a private thing, and watching Thurston show off his new independence in front of audiences was like someone rubbing grit in a gash. My friendliness faded away as one city turned into the next, replaced by anger.
It reached a point in São Paulo where I almost said something onstage. But I didn’t. Courtney Love happened to be touring South America at the same time. A few nights earlier, she had begun railing against a fan in the audience who was holding up a photo of Kurt Cobain. “I have to live with his shit and his ghost and his kid every day and throwing that up is stupid and rude,” she screamed. She left the stage, saying she’d return only if the audience agreed to chant, “Foo Fighters are gay.” The clip ended up on YouTube. It was typical Courtney shtick, but I would never want to be seen as the car crash she is. I didn’t want our last concert to be distasteful when Sonic Youth meant so much to so many people; I didn’t want to use the stage for any kind of personal statement, and what good would it have done anyway?
The band closed with “Teen Age Riot” from our album Daydream Nation. I sang, or half sang, the first lines: “Spirit desire. Face me. Spirit desire. We will fall. Miss me. Don’t dismiss me.”
Backstage, as usual, no one made a fuss out of this being our last show, or really about much of anything. All of us — Lee, Steve, Mark, our music techs — lived in different cities and parts of the country anyway. I was too sad and worried I would burst into tears to say good-bye to anyone, though I wanted to. Then everyone went his or her own way, and I flew back home, too.
Thurston had already announced a bunch of solo shows that would start in January. He would fly to Europe and then circle back to the East Coast. Lee Ranaldo was planning on releasing his own solo album. Steve Shelley was playing nonstop with the Chicago-based band Disappears. I would be playing a few gigs with a friend and fellow musician named Bill Nace, and working on artwork for an upcoming show in Berlin, but mostly I’d be home with Coco, helping her through her senior year of high school and the college application process. In the spring, Thurston and I had put our New York apartment on Lafayette Street on the market, and it finally sold six months later. Apart from that, just as the press release said, Sonic Youth had no future plans.