I was strolling through Tower Records at 4th and Broadway in Manhattan back in 1999 when the strangest thing happened. It was closing time and I was absorbed in a search for a gift for my parents. I was the only one browsing the classical section, and I guess the Tower employees were in a big hurry, because before I could get out the door, they locked up the store and accidentally left me inside.
Now you might imagine that being trapped overnight in such a store would be a dream come true for a music fanatic, but you have to remember, I was stuck upstairs in the classical section and couldn’t get anywhere near the stuff that I really liked. There I was, sitting on the floor surrounded by thousands of CDs—it just didn’t seem fair. Instead of digging around the vintage reggae recordings or sampling the latest jazz releases, I was forced to amuse myself by examining the works of Bach and Chopin.
Just as I was getting depressed and a little bit uncomfortable, I looked up at a wall display and couldn’t believe my eyes. There, in the classical section, was a Sonic Youth album I had never seen before. The cover was psychedelic in an understated sort of way and the words “Goodbye 20th Century” peeked through a spiraling purple vortex. Upon closer examination, I saw that this obscure double-disc was on the band’s own “SYR” label.
So, I snuggled up to one of the listening stations and put on the headphones. Then I closed my eyes and leaned back against a shelf filled with Beethoven’s 9th. “Finally,” I thought. “Some rocking entertainment to help me make it through the night.”
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The music didn’t rock; as a matter of fact, it wasn’t rock at all. It turned out that Sonic Youth was paying tribute to the conceptualist avant-garde and most of the tunes were “composed” during the 1960s. I say “composed,” because there’s a lot of noise involved here, and if not for the use of electric guitars, you wouldn’t even know it was a rock band performing this stuff. Still, the night was passing slowly and I couldn’t sleep, so I listened to the misguided Youth perform eccentric compositions by artists like John Cage, Steve Reich and Yoko Ono.
Now here’s the thing. Sonic Youth have a succinct understanding of the abstract artistry that emerged during the latter half of the twentieth century and while the music on this collection didn’t have a backbeat, it did contain some interesting textures and unusual effects. Using sampling, discordant guitar riffs, tape loops and other electronic noises, they embraced the groundbreaking work of the sixties avant-garde by way of intangible atmospherics, repetition-of-sound-as-art, atonal colorings and white-noise-as-entertainment.
By the time Tower Records opened the following morning, I was a changed man. You can imagine the staff’s surprise when their first customer of the day emerged from the classical section rather than the street. But there I was, standing at the checkout counter with a huge batch of CDs by composers like Pauline Oliveros, Christian Wolff and James Tenney.
Now don’t tell anybody, but I kept a copy of “Goodbye 20th Century” in my pocket when I left the store. I mean, you’ve got to be a little bit of a rebel in this world, don’t you? (Mitch Myers)