Cruel Summer: Sonic Youth, circa 1988
20 years ago this summer, I was stranded in Evanston, Illinois taking courses in fluid mechanics and engineering dynamics. Everyday, walking down Sheridan Avenue to class, avoiding darting blackbirds and buzzsaw mosquitos, I would listen to my walkman. My mixtapes contained a combination of oddball artists, selections from Frank Zappa's Hot Rats, The Church's Remote Luxury, Soul Asylum's Hang Time, Glass Eye's Bent by Nature, Camper Van Beethoven's Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, and fIREHOSE's if'n. I read something, somewhere, about Sonic Youth getting ready to release something in the fall. Although I would not visit New York for the first time until Summer 1990, I had always found something deliciously incomprehensible about Sonic Youth. How could a band that made such beautiful, crystalline noise come from a place as dank as dirty as New York?
Now, about the weather. The Chicago North Shore searing underneath the anvil sun. Ozone alerts. Superheated air thick with humidity.
Which reminds me of a tiny blurb in Byron Coley's excellent liner notes to the Deluxe Edition of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation. Here's Coley describing New York in August 1988 when Sonic Youth was still recording Daydream Nation:
August 1988 was near the height of New York's crack fever. The sidewalks weren't just littered with burning mattresses, they were also choked with insane zombies who wanted some fast money. "August was HOT," Thurston [Moore] recalls, "I'm not sure if we had AC at that point on Eldridge yet. The lyrics to 'Hyperstation' pretty much detail my daily trajectory. Take a right out of the Eldridge Street apartment, a left on Grand, a right on Bowery, a left on Broome, a right on Greene. I remember writing the lyrics in my head as I cruised to the studio."
Unlike all the hyperbolic giddiness over dérives, where writers on urbanism and technology continue to go ga-ga over their nostalgic evocations of psychogeography, etc., this quote from Coley and Moore really speaks to the idea of using a medium to experience the city. Here, noise with lyrics like There's bum trash in my hall and my place is ripped really provide a visceral aural portrait of SoHo in its pre-gentrification thrall.
Sure, color me nostalgic for invoking Sonic Youth, cities, and music circa 1988. But this moment, this album, this quote, this weather .... so apposite.