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Credit: Anders Jensen-Urstad


The unresolved murder that inspired 'Dirty' by Sonic Youth


Throughout their career, Sonic Youth gained a reputation as one of the most confrontational bands of the grunge era, spouting hard-edged lyrics which belied a frustration with the corruption, inequality, and brutality of modern life. But, in 1991, an unprovoked attack on one of the group’s close friends bought all of these things right to the surface. Because, on December 19th of that year, Joe Cole, a friend of the band, was shot dead in cold blood. Over 20 years later, that crime remains unresolved.

Son of actor Dennis Cole, Joe was an affable kind of guy. With his best friend Henry Rollins (Black Flag), he lived in a home in the notorious neighbourhood of Oakwood in Venice Beach, California. Regarded as something of a ghost town, the area developed a reputation for breeding a cycle of poverty, crime, and violence. Indeed, Rollins and Cole had only decided to move to the area because they were planning to make a film about the countless homeless Vietnam veterans who inhabited its deserted streets.

On December 19th, Joe and Henry decided to burn off some steam and headed over to a rock concert at Whisky A Go-Go, the famous venue in West Hollywood. On the way home, they made a stop at a 24-hour supermarket and then hoofed it back to their shared apartment. When they approached the entrance, they were met by two men armed with guns. The assailants pushed Rollins to his knees and forced Joe Cole to lie face down on the ground. Holding their weapons to the pair’s heads, the men told them not to scream. If they screamed, they died. Taking the pistols away for a moment, the intruders searched them for money and took what they could find. But, being poor creatives, the sum didn’t amount to much.

Still unsatisfied, the gunmen ordered Cole and Rollins to get more money from their apartment and bring it back. First, Henry rose to his feet and was allowed to enter the house. But when Joe went to do the same, one of the gunmen shot him at point-blank range on the forecourt. In the chaos, the gunmen also fired at Rollins as he made his way inside, the bullets ricocheting off the walls, leaving him unharmed. With Cole bleeding into the concrete, the two assailants made a run for it. By the time the LA police arrived, they had disappeared into the night. On the ground, they found Joe Cole; dead, with a bullet wound in his skull.

On hearing the news, Kim Gordon wrote ‘JC’ and Thurston Moore wrote ‘100%’ in memory of Joe Cole, both of which found their way onto Sonic Youth’s 1992 studio album Dirty. Tragically, despite hundreds of interviews with witnesses, the two gunmen were never found and, even after so much time, there is still a $25,000 reward for information that leads to their capture.