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.
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.'"