Rebuilding My Teenaged Record Collection One Album At A Time: Sonic Youth "Sister"

It was haunting, the way Kim Gordon murmured. She sounded like she knew everything, you could hear it in her voice. She knew everything but was too bored by it to tell you.
Publish date:
December 20, 2012

I have this memory of a lost night in the 80s. For a moment I’m in the home of some kids I don’t know, kids old enough to have their own place. Don’t ask me where I was before, or after, or who brought me there. I just know it was someplace like Allston, and the place was cold like maybe they didn’t pay their heating bill. Boston in the winter.

These kids were really cool. One was named maybe Darryl and he was just so beautiful. He had this careless Mohawk, his hair was light brown, shaggy/curly, shaved down the sides and it just tumbled into his face where his eyes were blue and his nose turned up cute like a rabbit. He wore a leather jacket with bands all over it. The girl that was there was really cool too, she wasn’t trying so hard like me and my friends were, with our carefully dyed hair and our intense makeup that -- one smudge, watch out. Goth is such drag. These kids were lazy punks. They didn’t have to try ‘cause they were it. I think they thought we were fussy, and young. We didn’t stay long. There wasn’t anything going on at their place, maybe we’d been expecting a party. Just low light, no booze, a haze of cigarette smoke unmoving in the lamp beams. And Sonic Youth on the stereo.

They would like Sonic Youth. Sonic Youth wasn’t so much a band to get all freaked out over, they were like a philosophy. There was something advanced about them, the way these kids were advanced. It felt like it was too late for me to get into Sonic Youth, but really it was too early. A weird attitude toward music, right, but shit was competitive. Me and my friends were always scrambling for an obscure, awesome band we could get into before anyone else, and get into them psychotically, and have dibs on them. I owned a few bands –- Gene Loves Jezebel was one, but also Christian Death. My friends could like them, maybe even love them a little, but they were mine. My best friend Guen owned the Sisters of Mercy and their spin-off The Mission UK. This was the caliber of bands me and my friends traded like bubble gum cards. But who could own Sonic Youth? You’d have to be a scholar. They were deep like ancient Egypt or something. They were their own code. There was something spooky about them, dirge-y. Were they a cult?

I learned about life from the music I listened to, I took lyrics really seriously. It seemed like I could learn a lot from Sonic Youth, but I honestly didn’t know if I was ready. I think on some level I knew that the bands I was obsessed with were just another kind of pop, even if I was getting my ass kicked in the street for being so into them.

I bought Sonic Youth’s Sister. Even the cover felt coded, a photographic rebus. The title and band’s name looked to be in golden Sharpie. Oh, look: "Sonic-Youth," it read. Is that how you wrote it? With a dash? This was crucial. I didn’t want to fuck up and write it wrong on my notebook or on my Catholic school skirt, people would call you out for that and it was embarrassing. You had to play it off like Who cares? but you did care, you cared deeply. Everyone did. Then, look on the other side, it says, "The Sonic Youth." The Sonic Youth? Clearly this band didn’t give a fuck. They were all over the place, deliberately messy.

What could I learn from these pictures? A comet shooting through outer space. A woman sprawled on a wooden floor, short hair, tight little shirt, no underwear. No underwear? That’s intense. Something is written on her leg, what’s that on her ankle, a tattoo or, like, is she cuffed to the floor or something? Is this saying something about the subjugation of women? No -- the girl doesn’t look upset. She’s a little sexy for sure but not as much as you’d think with no pants on. How about those cows on the other side, with the bangs that flopped in their faces like cute Darryl’s Mohawk? A picture of a small town, long-ago Main Street USA. Americana. Were they dissing suburbia? All I knew about suburbia is that punks liked to diss it. There’s a little baby naked on a lawn, with his little baby-penis. Then the planet Saturn. A series of houses that all looked alike. And some crazy object, a black and white photo of it, like a drill maybe, It seemed atomic. Some gears at the bottom.

I put on the record and guess what? It’s the musical equivalent of the pictures on the cover. There’s something cosmic and spacey and lonely, lost. Simple, primal drums, and wailing, weirdo guitars. This was not pop. Or was it? Deconstructed pop, ripped apart. It was haunting, the way Kim Gordon murmured. She sounded like she knew everything, you could hear it in her voice. She knew everything but was too bored by it to tell you. You’d have to figure it out for yourself. Thurston Moore seemed to give up his secrets more readily. Something in his voice was earnest.

The little sheet that was slipped inside the cover was typewritten Xeroxes of their lyrics, and this was before zines. On "Schizophrenia" Thurston said, "I went away to see an old friend of mine/His sister came over she was out of her mind." I liked how it was like a story. One of those weird nights when you wind up at someone’s house and some strange person is there being creepy or sad. Like when we wound up at the home of that guy who was supposed to be some big gay witch and he had an actual crystal ball that he twirled and then tossed at you, saying, "Catch the light!" When I found out it was a quote from "Labyrinth," I couldn’t tell if that made it more or less embarrassing.

Whereas a lot of the goth music I listened to tried to conjure a melodic romantic fantasy, I felt like Sonic Youth was playing it like it really was. Their music sounded like life to me, which maybe scared me a little, or depressed me. I was looking to escape. But I was captivated. "Come on get in the car," Kim insisted on "Pacific Coast Highway." "I won’t hurt you." Really? I wasn’t so sure. She sounded so tough and sinister. I respected her authority innately.

What about now? Well, it’s only a million times better today. It’s so atonal and wild and sexy. I really think more than anything this is music to fuck to. And I had been a virgin! There are some things you can’t get until you’ve cast off your innocence. No wonder it tripped me out. "He’s got a fatal erection home in bed... he’s got a hard tit killer fuck in his past," Thurston sing-songs in "Tuff Gnarl." Excuse me -- "hard tit"? Blow my mind! I hadn’t known tits could be hard.

Oh, my god -- Cotton Crown! Cotton Crown! Cotton Crown! How could I have forgotten that this is <very very most beautiful song ever recorded>, how it became my favorite song, how it satisfied all of my dreamy gothy uber-romantic teenaged needs: "Angels are dreaming of you/angels are dreaming of you..." This is when you’re cuddling after crazy sex and you’re flying high on druggy dopamine in love. What did I know about such things? This song is epic. Someone should make a documentary about this song. Listening to it now I get a full body memory of what it is like to long for something you have no words for. A craving for things you haven’t experienced, things you might not even know exist. "You’re gonna manifest the mystery," they promise in tandem. I feel like someone just presented the inside of my brain with the biggest most luscious bouquet of otherworldly flowers. What a gift a song can be!

Being a virgin, sitting on my bedroom floor, listening to "Sister," trying to de-code it. I beheld the cover, its pictures. Each side contained a pitch-black square amidst the images. I ran my fingers over it. It was raised, not flat like the others. I scraped it a little, and it began to loosen itself from the cardboard. NO WAY. The most mysterious band with the most mysterious sound had an actual mystery on their cover! My heart raced, I felt like a girl in a book, like I’d found a secret drawer in the back of a desk or a secret room that opened up from a bookcase. I tugged the blackness –- a sticker –- from the cover. There was a picture of Disney’s Magic Castle, the blue and white palace in the center of the theme park. Drawn over it were a series of magic marker circles, like radar being emitted from within, a secret broadcast.

Panting, I tore the sticker off the other side. A girl glared out from beneath. Young, maybe my age. She looked pissed. She wore overalls and stared straight into the camera. She was covered by a psychedelic wash of color, yellow and red blobs, like a strobe was passing over her, or she was trapped inside a lava lamp. I now know it to be Richard Avedon’s Colorado, August 23rd, 1980, I saw it in person at his retrospective at San Francisco MoMA. Dick and Disney must have threatened the band with a lawsuit!

I don’t know if I was savvy enough to pick up on the practical reasons for the stickers. I just thought it was another spooky gift from these witchy wizards, chanting art poets. The only sad thing about my new copy of Sister is that those stickers are gone, and the black space is real, a void on the cover. I sit fingering it anyway waiting for a trap door to open -- and it does. The record has come to an end in my apartment, but <somewhere else> in the building, someone is now playing Sonic Youth! Loud! Like I just was! Music is magic.