Most bands don’t get to see their legacy play out in real time, but Sonic Youth are one of the few that can see the ripple effects they made throughout alternative music happen right in front of their eyes. That’s because they’re one of the few bands who were able to survive 30 years of upheaval and innovate to break new ground, inspire a whole new wave of musicians, and call it quits on their own terms. Sonic Youth are comparable only to R.E.M. in their ability to make their mark and step back to observe their continued relevance as one of the most important alternative bands of all time.
Unfortunately, Sonic Youth were not able to do so amicably. The core of Sonic Youth was based around guitarist Thurston Moore and bassist Kim Gordon, a married couple who were long held up as the idealised sustainable example of rock star love. With them throughout the entire trek was guitarist Lee Ranaldo, whose alternative-tuned six-string interplay with Moore created the wall of noise that became the band’s signature sound. Sonic Youth rotated through a number of drummers in their early years before settling on Steve Shelley in the late 1980s, solidifying their most consistent and best-known lineup.
Starting in the early ’80s no-wave punk scene of New York City, Sonic Youth were combative and experimental to their core, rarely featuring melodies or traditional rock arrangements as many of their early songs were improvised noise excursions featuring drumsticks, forks, and power drills violently clanging against Moore and Ranaldo’s guitars. But as they forged ahead, and as the punk scene began to morph into something more legible and mainstream-friendly, Sonic Youth became the cutting edge leaders of the nascent alternative movement, motivating contemporaries like Dinosaur Jr. and future generations of alt-rock superstars like Nirvana and Hole.
They even managed to grab a fair bit of success for themselves: 1988’s Daydream Nation gained major praise and won them a major label deal on DGC Records. The follow-up, 1990’s Goo, shipped over 200,000 copies, landed on the Billboard album charts, and scored the band a legitimate alt-rock radio hit with ‘Kool Thing’. Sonic Youth could somehow be both the vanguard and the elder statesman of the alternative world, with the band transitioning into artier and more boundary-pushing areas as they continued throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
Unfortunately, the end of Sonic Youth was decided by Moore’s affair with book editor Eva Prinz. Moore and Gordon attempted marriage counselling, but the point was moot when Moore refused to end the affair. In October of 2011, Moore and Gordon officially announced their separation. The only problem: Sonic Youth still had a few tour dates left to perform. By the time the band made it to the SWU Music and Arts Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil, there was nothing left on the agenda. Gordon details the harrowing final show in her memoir, Girl in a Band.
It had only been a month since their separation announcement, but Moore and Gordon had been personally separated since August. “The couple everyone believed was golden and normal and eternally intact, who gave younger musicians hope they could outlast a crazy rock-and-roll world, was now just another cliche of middle-aged relationship failure – a male midlife crisis, another woman, a double life,” Gordon writes.
The band’s opening song was ‘Brave Men Run (In My Family)’, an early-era cut from 1985’s Bad Moon Rising. “I could barely hold it together during the first song, ‘Brave Men Run’. At one point my voice fell like it was scraping against its own bottom, and then the bottom fell out,” Gordon says, adding: “Tonight Thurston and I didn’t look at each other once, and when the song was done, I turned my shoulders to the audience so no one in the audience could see my face.” The band ran through a setlist that included some of the band’s best loved songs, including ‘Cross the Breeze’, ‘Schizophrenia’, and ‘Death Valley ’69’.
“We could have cancelled the tour, but we’d signed a contract,” she continued. “Performing live is how bands make a living, and we all had families and bills to pay, and in mine and Thurston’s case, college tuition for Coco [Moore, the couple’s daughter] to think about.” According to Gordon, the band dynamics at the time were strained, not just between her and Moore, but with the other members caught in the middle as well.
“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… 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.”
The final live performance was, in some small way, cathartic for Gordon. “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,” Gordon added. “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.” As the band careened towards the final song, Gordon could feel her professional and personal life as she knew it was coming to an end. The band finished with what’s now become their signature song, ‘Teen Age Riot’.
The entire set is available on YouTube, but Gordon says that she’s not interested. “Someone told me the entire Sao Paulo concert is online, but I’ve never seen it and I don’t want to,” she said. “Throughout that last show, I remember wondering what the audience was picking up on or thinking about this raw, weird pornography of strain and distance. What they saw and what I saw were probably two different things.”