Art Rocker vs. Dweeb: Sorting Out Thurston Moore

Last summer, we were standing in line at a bookstore. Okay, that's not a promising start to a rock feature. We're aware of this. It's always best to begin these things with a bold declaration. Something like: "Mr. Big is back!" Though the problem with such pithy beginnings is that they're often false. Because Mr. Big is never coming back. Not to the pop charts, at least. But we really were in line at a bookstore. And Thurston Moore was standing right behind us.

Thurston Moore. You know him. He's a founder, singer, and guitarist for Sonic Youth; the enchanted link between the old New York avant-garde and indie rock; a ubiquitous presence on MTV in the 1990s; an occasional essayist; and a very tall man. Moore is as accomplished as art-rockers come. Yet what gave him away in that bookstore wasn't his aura of past Buzz Bin glory. It was his shoes. He was the first 50-year-old man we'd ever seen wearing Chuck Taylors, which struck us as just the sort of thing Thurston Moore would do, and was thus reassuring in a way we hadn't known since before the Florida recount.

Now, we like Thurston Moore. Really, we do. His new Beck-produced album, Demolished Thoughts, is truly fantastic — maybe the best thing he's put his name on in the 21st century. But standing next to Thurston Moore aroused the fighting spirit of our shoulder angel and devil. As these things tend to go in Looney Tunes shorts and Doctor Faustus, the angel was sympathetic — and the devil was sort of an asshole.

Don't let his holding a book fool you.
Ari Marcopoulos
Don't let his holding a book fool you.

Our inner fanboy spoke first. What could possibly be wrong with Thurston Moore, it argued? He's a brilliant musician. "The Diamond Sea" is one of the most beautiful songs of the CD era. When, at an impressionable age, we found "Teenage Riot" on a cassette our oldest brother left behind, it opened up a new world for us, one in which Mr. Big no longer had a place. It could be said that Thurston Moore changed our life. And here he was: standing behind us at a bookstore, with the familiar lank mop of hair and pair of Chucks.

Then our devil turned up a suppressed memory: "I moved to New York to fuck Patti Smith." That's Thurston Moore, the occasional essayist. As a writer, Moore has always been a legendary guitarist. This is also true for many of the lyrics he's penned for Sonic Youth. Because for every line as compellingly direct as "Time takes its crazy toll," there's an album's worth of lyrics as gnarly as "The mirror's gonna steal your soul."

So, yes. The man writes like a teenager without a library card. But prose poses special problems for Moore. Namely, there is no dazzling feedback to hide behind, no crooked melodies to deadpan. When he writes an essay about, say, his first couple of years in New York in the late '70s — as he did in the 1994 piece "On the Loose" — his downtown boho mystique falls apart. As a reader, you realize you might be in the company of a very shallow man, a writer whose worldview has failed to develop beyond the implicit rock 'n' roll utopia of a Creem magazine letters section, circa 1975.

In "On the Loose," Moore the narrator is supposed to be wiser than Moore the protagonist. That's how personal essays work. But the detachment is largely absent in his story. Witness, again, its most famous line — unfurled: "I moved to New York to fuck Patti Smith and now Lydia was saying Patti was most decidedly uncool." In this sentence, Lydia is Lydia Lunch, the No Wave enchantress; Patti Smith is Patti Smith; and Thurston Moore is a dweeby 19-year-old New Englander dreaming of starting a band with Sid Vicious. It is 1979. He is "bonkers, alone." Though he deserves it. The fact that his new girlfriend, Kim Gordon, is brilliantly creative has eluded him. "She had beautiful eyes and the most beautiful smile," Moore recalls. And, most importantly, "she seemed to like me."

When Moore wrote "On the Loose," he was in his mid-30s. It was 15 years on from the period documented in the essay. Yet he wrote it as if he was unaware of just how insufferable his 19-year-old self appears. Which suggests Moore himself hadn't become more sufferable in the meantime. Standing in front of him at the bookstore, we wondered: Had an additional 15 years — 30 years total from the time he moved to New York to fuck Patti Smith — made a difference?

The bookstore line had dwindled down to two: just us and Thurston Moore. Our inner bureaucracy adjourned. Who had the last word — angel or devil?

"Thurston Moore, sir?" we said, meekly.

"Yeah?" Moore said, apparently game for whatever was coming next.

"Thanks for 'Teenage Riot.'"

 
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3 comments
Jasper Leach
Jasper Leach

Ok Andrew: You stood next to Thurston Moore in a line, had a malformed meditation upon his vexing persona and image (as a writer), and timidly said something he's probably heard a thousand times before. That's the only emergent sense one can safely take away from this article without a vivid imagination or, ahem, context.

The shame here is that you opened up several avenues where you could actually explore just why you felt conflicted standing in line next to Mr. Moore. You say he writes "like a teenager without a library card," yet you offer about four sentences to demonstrate this. (I understand print space is at a premium these days, so I should let it go.)(By the way, your elitist criticism of his writing style - pot to kettle in your case, I'm afraid - is patently false in its correlation between how much Moore might or might not read and the quality of his writing. One can be wonderfully well-read and still be a hack writer.) But forgetting this, let's examine your one big sticking point: the sentence "I moved to New York to fuck Patti Smith and now Lydia was saying Patti was most decidedly uncool."

OK. "I moved to New York to fuck Patti Smith." Well, at least Mr. Moore was honest and clear with his intentions in his memoir, something you seem to be incapable of. Explore this sentence a little further, and you'll find the secret to why Thurston is such a divisive figure in (underground) popular culture: he's a starfucker! And not only is he a starfucker, he lusts after another artist who turned starfucking (at least lyrically) into an art, only to become an inspiring legend - while remaining, himself, a starfucker years later, still wide-eyed in hindsight.

"...and now Lydia was saying Patti was most decidedly uncool." Again, you missed out on a golden opportunity to correlate the Thurston Moore's facets on a literary and musical level. Here, Thurston explored the dilemma with the ever-changing, cannibalistic nature of "punk": what was once radical and shocking to him was being dismissed by another, more recent (but still attractive) idol as old hat. Who to turn to? In fact, it is this cannibalism that has dictated the arc of his career, particularly with Sonic Youth, a group who have brilliantly "borrowed" and discarded styles (and often, members) from artists far more original than themselves their entire career as those artists rose and fell (e.g. Bush Tetras, Pussy Galore, DNA, Minor Threat, Boredoms, Glenn Branca, Dinosaur Jr., even Pavement), while Sonic Youth remained a pretty good, functional band. If its timely, SY does it; even playing "Daydream Nation" in full, basically, once Pitchfork said it was OK.

If the fact that Kim Gordon is brilliant has "eluded him" - something, by the way, which is NEVER even implied in the essay - it's probably because he's got his eye on the sky, wondering if he ever really had a chance with Lydia and jerking off to Radio Ethiopia. But that's bullshit too, because you missed the entire point of the essay. Once Gordon is introduced in the memoir, the references to punk-rock idols and underground heartthrobs melt away, only to end with the couple's first kiss - an actual nod to a more mature future for the writer. But best to stick with the most quoted, out-of-context sentence in the entire piece, right?

By the way, good move: you were too scared (or "polite") to say anything above the level of timid fanboy speak to Thurston Moore, even while elitist bookworm criticism swirled through your head; you then pulled out your Kindle and wrote an idiotic treatise on one sentence in an essay he wrote seventeen years ago that's now been published in print and online, where he's far more likely to see it.

You're a fucking coward.

Andrew Stout
Andrew Stout

I apologize for the time I've taken to check your comment, Jasper. It's been one deadline after another these past couple weeks. I can assure you your thoughtful analysis is appreciated.

Actually, I don't disagree with any of your ad hominem points. I by no means intended to be the hero of my story. I'm sorry you missed that. And I'm sorry that upset you.

Regarding the music and literary criticism you attempted in your comment: I'm glad you found a platform for those opinions. Best of luck to you.

 

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